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Native Wildflowers of the North Dakota Grasslands

JPG -- species photo

Plains Pricklypear (Opuntia polyacantha)


The area west of a line running through Burke, Sheridan, and McIntosh Counties is home to plains pricklypear in North Dakota. Overall, the species ranges from British Columbia to Saskatchewan south to Texas and Arizona.

Plains pricklypear is perennial from thick roots. The juicy "pads" of this plant are actually stem segments; on plains prickly pear they are about four inches across, and covered with clusters of mixed short and long spines. Bright yellow flowers about two to three inches wide usually bloom during the first week of July. Later in the season, pale seeds are found inside dry, oblong fruits about one inch long.

Look for plains pricklypear in heavily-grazed native pastures in areas where clay soils predominate; in long-overgrazed pastures, clumps of pricklypear up to six feet in diameter may make up nearly ten percent of the ground cover. During drought, desert ranchers sometimes burn off the spines to make the plants palatable to livestock. The fruits, stems, flowers, and juices of the opuntias (many of the nearly 1000 species are shrubs or small trees) are an important source of foods and drinks for humans in Mexico and the southwestern United States. However, our species have little economic value.

Opuntias are, of course, members of the cactus family (Cactaceae), the name derived from the Greek kaktos, a spiny plant of the Mediterranean. The generic name Opuntia was an early name used for some plant by the Greek father of modern plant morphology Theophrastus of Eresos (died 285 B.C.). The specific epithet polyacantha means "many thorns" in botanical Latin. Plains pricklypear was first described for science in 1819 by the English gardener, entomologist, and student of succulent plants Adrian Haworth (1767-1833).


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