Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Barnes County claims the easternmost record for fragile pricklypear in North Dakota. The plant is primarily a resident of the Great Plains, however, it has been found on high dry river bluffs as far east as Illinois.
The spiny, segmented stems of fragile pricklypear are unmistakable. These succulent pads are oblong to pear-shaped, and about one to two inches long. Several dozen spines up to an inch long decorate each pad. The scale-like true leaves are tiny and soon shed. Fragile pricklypear does not flower very often, but when conditions are right, there appear beautiful yellow blossoms nearly two inches across. The plant is a perennial that multiplies to form heaps or mounds up to three feet wide and a foot tall. Long, thick taproots penetrate deep underground. The fruits look like miniature dried figs.
Fragile pricklypear is often found on saline clay soil and quartzite outcrops. Plants seem to prosper on idle or lightly grazed prairie in our area. The segments break off easily and become a painful nuisance to humans, livestock, and dogs. The fruits, juices, and pads of many of the nearly 1000 species of Opuntia found in the desert southwest are highly esteemed for foods, drinks, and other products. However, our two species have little economic value.
This plant is, of course, a member of the cactus family (Cactaceae), the name derived from the Greek kaktos, a spiny plant of the Mediterranean. Opuntia was an early name used for some plant by the Greek father of plant morphology, Theophrastus of Eresos (died 285 BC). Fragile pricklypear was first described for modern science by Thomas Nuttall in 1819.