Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
More widely distributed than its close relative the Missouri pincushion cactus, common pincushion occurs across all but northeastern North Dakota. Elsewhere, the plant ranges from Alberta and Manitoba to Texas and New Mexico. Both plants are commonly called "ball cactus".
Common pincushion cactus is a perennial, leafless plant whose fleshy stems carry out the photosynthesis. These ball-like stems occur singly or in small clusters, and protrude partway through the native prairie sod. Numerous spine-bearing tubercles dot the plant. The 2-inch wide flowers are reddish-purple, and mature into fleshy brown fruits the following spring.
In North Dakota, common pincushion cactus seems to thrive under the dry, warm conditions caused by heavy grazing, but in the more arid parts of its range, the plant may be more abundant where grazing is light or moderate.
This plant is, of course, a member of the cactus family (Cactaceae), a huge group of about 1200 species that is characteristic of the American deserts. The name was derived from the Greek kaktos, a spiny plant of the Mediterranean. The generic name Coryphantha means "top-flowered" concerning the placement of the flower atop the stem. The specific epithet vivipara means "sprouting from the parent plant" in botanical Latin, in reference to the formation of new buds on the old stems. Common pincushion cactus was first collected for science by the English-American botanist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859). Nuttall was one of the early visitors to the wilderness that became North Dakota.