Indigenous to the Americas, about 200 species in the genus Opuntia
Grows along the ground, sometimes forms low mounds
The prickly pear is a low spreading succulent cactus that grows in sunny, dry places. It’s typically found in rocky areas of upland prairies, sand prairies, glades, tops and exposed ledges of bluffs, and rocky stream terraces. Prickly pear’s distinctive large, paddlelike green parts are technically thickened, flattened stems. Its true leaves are the conical protuberances that last a short time before drying and falling off. Yellow flowers bloom from May through July. Prickly pears produce an edible, purplish-red, pear-shaped fruit.
Prickly pears have clusters of one to six spines at the base of each leaf. These spines serve the plant in at least two ways. First, they deter herbivores from eating them. Second, the spines hook onto animals as they graze, facilitating the plant’s distribution elsewhere.
The fruits and young pads of some species of prickly pears are eaten in regions where cacti are more common. Prickly pear candy is made in the desert southwest. In addition, prickly pear pads — known as nopales — are sliced, canned, and sold in the Hispanic section of some grocery stores. Try them in Mexican style scrambled eggs!
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