A low, spreading, succulent cactus. Flowers numerous, yellow, with many similar-looking sepals and petals, the innermost often with an orange splotch, to 3 inches across, with many stamens. Blooms May–July. The large, paddlelike green parts (pads) are technically the thickened, flattened stems. New pads have tiny, soft, conical protuberances that are the true leaves; these persist only briefly before drying and falling off. At the base of each leaf is a cluster of 1-6 spines plus many tiny, hairlike bristles that are very difficult to remove from the skin once they are embedded. Fruit is edible, purplish red, and pear-shaped, with tufts or bristles. The seeds are embedded in a pale, mucilaginous substance.
Similar species: Plains prickly pear (O. macrorhiza) is uncommon and found mostly in southwestern Missouri. It might actually be a spinier variety of eastern prickly pear. Starvation cactus (O. polyacantha) was once found in Jasper County but has probably been extirpated.