There are about 180 species of prickly pears found from southern Canada and into Argentina. The Sonoran Desert is home to at least 18 different species of wild prickly pear.
Fruits in prickly pears can be dry or fleshy and serve as an important source of food for a large number of animal species, including insects, birds, rodents, coyotes, javelinas and deer. Fleshy fruits are favored for human consumption, with the Indian Fig (Opuntia ficus-indica), which has been cultivated for consumption, having the highest sugar content (up to 16 Brix degrees). The Engelmann’s Prickly Pear (7-9 Brix degrees), a wild species, is also commonly used to make syrup.
Flowers: J F M A M J J A S O N D
Status: Native (18 species)
Size: Varies by species
Sun: Full to filtered
Watering: None after established, but faster growth with supplemental irrigation
Growth Rate: Slow to fast
Pruning: Pads can be removed to reduce size and spread
Disease and Pests: Root rot and cochineal scale
Uses: Source of shade, habitat and food. Nectar source for native bees and other pollinators.
Notes: Native species have denser spines and higher amounts of oxalic acid.
- Engelmann’s (Opuntia engelmannii) – Found in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts at elevations below 4,500′. Flowers in mid-late spring with fruits in late summer and fall.
- Indian Fig (Opuntia ficus indica) – Naturalized in warm climates world wide. Upright tree-like growth habit to 20′ tall. Mostly without glochids or spines. Flowers in mid-spring with fruits in summer.
- Santa Rita (Opuntia santa-rita) – Found in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and into Mexico. Moderate growth rate to 6′ with equal spread. Immature blue blade pads or pads that are cold or drought stressed will have a distinct purple tinge. Blooms April – May with fruits in late summer and fall.
Other recognized scientific names or synonyms include but are not limited too: Opuntia santa rita var. violacea, Opuntia macrocentra var. macrocentra, Opuntia violacea var. macrocentra, Opuntia gosseliniana, and Opuntia violacea var. castetteri
- Plains (Opuntia polycantha) – Broadly distributed in arid habitats from Canada into northern Mexico. Grows to 3′ high with wider spread. Flowers in April to May with fruits in late summer to fall. Hardy to below 0 F.
- Purple (Opuntia macrocentra) – Native to Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and south into Mexico. Dense low-growing to 2′ high and much greater spread. Blooms in April – May with fruit in late summer and fall. Very spiny!
- Old Mexico (Opuntia gomei) cultivar – Originates in Texas and down into Mexico; the spineless cultivar is very tolerant of heat and sun, but can handle partial shade. Pads have an undulating wavy edge, and yellow blooms appear in late spring and early summer. Grows to about 5′ tall by 8′ wide.
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