A Passion For Opuntia

Texas prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri) ~ Galveston Island

The barrier islands of the Texas coast are well enough known for the beachcombing, fishing, and partying they offer. But behind the dunes, a world of flowering plants and grasses holds sway, including several species of cacti.

On my neighborhood islands — Galveston, Follett’s, and Brazos — at least three species of prickly pear can be found in addition to Opuntia engelmannii: O. humifusa (previously O. compressa), O. macrorhiza, and O. stricta, which is nearly spineless. Still, my favorite is the common Texas prickly pear.

Flowers range from a bright, clear yellow to orange, or even red. Sometimes, flowers of all three colors appear on the same plant. Many flowers combine colors and, as they age, even the brightest yellow fades toward the same delicate, peachy hue that characterizes the buds.

Yellow prickly pear flowers on Follett’s island

The petals of aging flowers sometimes seem to thin; in the right light, they can glow like paper lanterns.

A flower still blooms along the Blue Water highway at sunset

Regardless of color, prickly pear flowers contain an abundance of pollen. Bees, flies, beetles, and ants are common pollinators, with larger bees taking advantage of the easy access to pollen provided by the flowers.

Here, a bee pauses before taking the plunge, perhaps to appreciate the riches spread before it. When it comes to the prickly pear — the state plant of Texas — the bee and I are equally appreciative.


Comments always are welcome.
A note regarding taxonomy:  Some sites consider O. engelmannii and O. lindheimeri to be separate species. Others continue to list the Texas prickly pear as O. engelmannii var. lindheimeri. For  a comparison of the species, click here. (The site as a whole is an excellent resource.)


51 thoughts on “A Passion For Opuntia

  1. Good morning, Linda,
    I’ve known the names “Prickly Pear” and “Opuntia”, but I didn’t know they were one and the same plant. Glad to have learned something new. :)
    We had quite a few Prickly Pears at our old place, in Karnes County, large and nicely blossoming at that, but we neither have many nor big ones here in our garden. I’ll try to let some grow in our wildflower area, though – that part of the property that’s only being mowed once or twice a year.
    Have a wonderful day,
    P.S.: We’ll be off to Port A. later today, to celebrate our wedding-anniversary there tomorrow.

    1. There’s so much to learn we’ll never be done with it, Pit.

      You shouldn’t have any trouble getting some to grow, if you want them. I dropped a pad onto the dirt in a pot without noticing it, and before I knew it, it had rooted and was putting out new shoots. Your wildflower spot should be just right — they certainly don’t need the rich soil of a garden bed.

      Congratulations on your anniversary — give Mary my best, too. Now that school is starting, it’s a good time to visit places on the coast. The herd should have thinned a bit.

      1. Good morning, Linda,
        I’m sure there will be no problems with cacti in that area. We already have some growing there. It only requires letting them grow and not mowing them over in autumn.
        Thanks for your congratulations,
        from the happy couple Mary and Pit :)

    1. Now I’m thinking of Donovan, and his wonderful, wacky “Mellow Yellow”.

      I do think of the flowers as flame-like from time to time. As a matter of fact, the first photo led me to use “Carrying A Torch For Opuntia” as the post’s working title for a time. Then, I decided the usual meanings of the phrase weren’t quite what I wanted, so I changed it.

  2. I did not know that prickly Pear was the state plant of Texas. Wow that is exciting and your beautiful photos make it even more desirable. I always enjoy your photos and stories of the area. Thanks

    1. Sometimes I wonder how many state this-and-thats we have. At least the prickly pear is native, unlike some of our honored plants. It was a terrific year for prickly pear down on the Island this year. There was a big one on Stewart Road near Lafitte’s Cove that had more flowers than I’ve ever seen on a cactus of any sort — gorgeous!

      So nice of you to stop by — thanks for the kind words.

    1. I think so, too. The contrast between their delicate, colorful flowers and the prickly plants always is something to see, and there’s nothing better than finding one out in the middle of nowhere. For some reason, they always look nicer on a rocky hillside than in a Home Depot plant department!

  3. I once lived on a property with these growing, and fruiting, and cooked a delicious jam from them. Picking and preparing was of course, a delicate operation.
    Glorious images.

    1. I know a family that makes syrup and jelly from the tunas, and they swear by tongs for picking the fruits. At least to a degree, it eliminates the need for those painful close encounters.

      I remembered that prickly pear’s considered a rather nasty invasive in your country, and when I checked to see which species might be causing the trouble, I was surprised to see that Opuntia stricta is one of them — it also grows here. We have our own troubles with invasive species, of course; they really can cause trouble, even when they’re beautiful and tasty.

      1. Yes, I used tongs, and then held the fruit over a gas flame to burn off the spines, before further processing. These red fruits resulted in something like cranberry colour. It was a long time ago though.
        I see these, and some other cacti growing around the bush, and despite some great efforts by Landcare groups, the landholders don’t seem to bother about any control.
        Another case of lovely plant, wrong place.

    1. Have you seen any in your area? There are a couple of species that apparently do quite well up there. I thought this was fascinating:

      “Established winter hardy cacti need no winter protection whatsoever. Heavy snows won’t hurt the plants. In fact, they insulate the plants from drying winter winds. Though it is true that most desert cacti aren’t winter hardy, a number of different species will survive in [Michigan]. They include species of ball cactus, barrel cactus, prickly pear, and other kinds of Opuntias.”

      Just think how happy your bees would be if you planted some. They’d be a conversation piece, for sure.

  4. Beautiful! Great shots, and really like both the yellow and the peach tones. I like the sunset/paper lantern shot in particular. There’s been some “sky lanterns” (those miniature paper hot air balloons) flying over the lakes this summer, most often red, but sometimes yellow, and these petals do remind me of that. The sky lanterns may not be the best idea, for a number of reasons, but it’s too wet around here for them to start any fires, and they are undeniably a pretty sight.
    I was thinking about bees and pollen this weekend, when it took 20 minutes to pick all the little tick-seeds and tiny velcro burrs off my socks and clothes.

    1. Thanks, Rob. Like you, I really like the peach/yellow combo. My mother favored some kind of rose that had those colors in combination, and the cactus flowers always remind me of them.

      Sky lanterns never occurred to me — probably because I never see them. I was thinking more of the luminarias that are used at Christmas, and for weddings or parties. Apart from fire issues with the sky lanterns, there’s been some fervent opposition to them here because of the damage they do to the environment. A big festival on South Padre Island was cancelled last year because of concerns about debris, pollution, and harm to wildlife; they’re illegal in many Texas cities, including my own.

      I found they’re illegal in New York, too — unless they’re tethered. Tie one to the bow of your boat or your barbeque, and it’s all good. Let that lantern fly, and the Lantern Patrol will get you.

      You have my utmost sympathy when it comes to those stick-tights and burs. They can be awful. I have a friend whose curly-haired dog was embarassed for weeks after he got into burs, and had to be shaved.

  5. I guess we have too much rain here for Prickly Pear to grow naturally, so I enjoyed seeing these photos, Linda. The paper lanterns are especially lovely. The only cacti I’ve had any success with are Jade plants, and they’re more correctly categorized as succulents. I probably hover too much and tend to overwater!

    1. Overwatering will kill a cactus — no question about that. I lost a couple to overwatering, myself. They looked just fine until they fell over and I discovered the whole inside had rotted. I was lucky enough to have someone tell me never to water them to protect them against a freeze. In fact, after November I rarely water them — maybe once a month. They’ll let you know it’s time to start again by putting out little buds.

      You do have one native prickly pear species that’s fairly widespread in your state. I was surprised to find that they’ll do fine even as far north as Michigan and Masschusetts — at least, certain species will. I don’t think the Texas prickly pear would be fond of snow.

  6. Oh happy bee! I like prickly pear (and other cacti) out in its wild element, but I’ve come to dislike the ubiquitous cacti and agave (of various sorts) that are all over Austin. I must remind myself that yes, there are certain appropriate cacti and agave that belong here. I understand that folks plant these because they’re “easy” but near intersections, along walkways, and planted instead of more appropriate perennials has started to annoy me. Okay, rant over and your photos are scrumptious!

    1. Don’t worry — bee happy! I certainly understand the concern about overly large plants. There are plenty of people who plant those cute little agaves without understanding that they’re going to grow, and grow, and grow some more. A friend planted one about six feet from her house, and it only took about three years for her to realize her mistake.

      I didn’t realize until I spent some time browsing the Opuntia site I linked that there are some species that are smaller and better behaved than the Texas prickly pear. One (whose name I can’t remember now) sounded especially nice: small pads, not much height, and short spines. It would be fun to add another species to my collection.

      I thought you’d like the bees. How could I post prickly pear without them?

    1. Thanks, Kayti. Most of these photos were taken on the same weekend — the flowers suddenly decided to put on a show, and I was willing to be their appreciative audience. I wasn’t as appreciative as they bees, though.

  7. I think the cactus motto is: “Look but don’t touch!” They always seem to have the most luscious flowers in the most stunning colors, but those spines!

    1. No kidding. I laughed out loud when I saw the tiny little tagline on the Opuntia site I linked. Up in the right hand corner, in a very small font, it says, “Glochids are forever…” And so they are. At least you can see a spine to pull it out.

    1. We haven’t had many of those wonderful blue skies this summer, so I was especially happy to take advantage of these. I’m glad you like them. It’s wonderful the way one plant can be seen in so many ways.

  8. We have our own Prickly Pear in New England- Opuntia humifusa (the Eastern Prickly-pear which also has bright yellow flowers. Sad to say I have yet to see one although folks do grow them in their gardens. I have one little Opuntia growing with my other potted cacti but it has yet to flower…it’s only a few years old and still very small.
    I’d say that you covered all the angles.

    1. It tickles me that we share this one. I think I’ve seen it a time or two, and now that I’ve paid more attention to it, I might find it more often: especially in the sandy soils on the bay side of the islands.

      It’s interesting that none of my potted prickly pear ever have flowered. Now I’m wondering whether they bloom on new growth. If they do, I’m the reason they don’t flower, because they keep getting so big, I keep breaking off pads. Maybe I ought not do that.

      1. It’s worth a try. I don’t know about cacti, but most other plants bush out when you prune them, so maybe removing the pads encourages more pad growth rather than flower formation.

        1. There’s no question that removing pads encourages more pads to grow. And a pot may not be the best setting for them. Lace cacti and some of the columnars will bloom in a pot, but the opuntia may need a larger root system, and so on.

    1. The colors always have appealed to me. They can be strong and clear, or almost pastel. And sometimes it’s just nice to have some really big flowers to enjoy. The pollinators certainly think so.

  9. Linda, these are splendid. I love the blooms of cactus. Many folks do not appreciate how pretty cacti are but if one stops and looks there is so much to see. Your pics are lovely and they brought to mind all the cactus that I see in various areas of my county. There are none growing in my immediate area but I think I remember some growing on my in-laws 10 acres which is only about a city block away from my property. There is an abundance of them west and north of my city.

    1. I’ve wondered whether cacti are under-appreciated because many people don’t see them when they’re blooming. If you miss the flowers, and only see them as those collections of nondescript, spiny pads, it would be easy to wonder what all the fuss is about.

      The next time you find a prickly pear in full bloom, try touching the stamens and see what happens. I’m going to give it a try. Look at this video.. According to the researchers, the movement helps with self-pollination. Tricky plants!

        1. After seeing Steve’s photos of the tannin-tinted water, I was thinking about the issue of tannins in wines — whether they cause headaches. I found this article that notes some researchers think histamines could be responsible. Interesting.

            1. Strange. It worked for me, but who knows? In any event, here are the relevant paragraphs:

              “Although experts say more study is warranted, and there is dissent, a lot of research suggests that the headache culprits might be histamine and tyramine, other chemical substances that are naturally present in wine. Histamine dilates blood vessels and tyramine first constricts then dilates blood vessels — ouch!

              Dan L. Keiller, president of the newly formed Medical Wine Interest and Education Society in San Diego, says several studies from Europe show that “red wines, in general, contain more histamine than Champagnes or sparkling wines and those usually contain more histamine than [still] white wines.” Indeed, headaches from red wine are so common that the phenomenon has its own name, “RWH syndrome”-that’s “red wine headache.” But, Dr. Keiller hastens to add, “Histamine content does not correlate consistently with color, bouquet or taste characteristics of the wine.”

              People who most often have trouble with histamine in wine, Dr. Keiller and others say, are those who lack an enzyme in their intestines that can help them metabolize histamine. Tyramine, meantime, can cause your blood pressure to rise, and that triggers headaches in some people. These same people might get headaches from aged cheeses, smoked or cured meats, and citrus fruits.”

              Hard to say, of course, but it’s true that both red wine and champagne give me trouble, and I won’t drink champagne at all because it takes only one glass to start the headache.

  10. One could hardly find more beauty than in the prickly pear’s flower. It astonished me that this plant is apparently held and viewed without a hint of danger in the US. The same could be said of the blackberry which has taken over tens of thousands acres of farmland in Australia and is also on the list of noxious plants.

    Yet in Holland the blackberry plant was sought after, not least because of the sweet berries. It is not invasive. On our previous farm in Australia the blackberry was our number 1 enemy.

    “Prickly pears (Genus Opuntia) are an invasive plant species in Australia as well. … The moth Cactoblastis cactorum from South America, whose larvae eat prickly pear, was introduced in 1925 and almost wiped out the population. This case is often cited as an example of successful biological pest control”.
    Prickly pears in Australia – Wikipedia


    May well the passion for opuntia thrive in Texas. The beauty of its flowers as shown in your superb photos warrants that, Linda.

    1. As obvious as it should be, it was quite a revelation to me when I realized that invasives aren’t only a problem on this end. While we fight Japanese honeysuckle, Chinese tallow trees, and salt cedar, other parts of the world are contending with an invasion of our natives, like prickly pear, and they aren’t any happier about it than we are.

      Even the kinds of biological control you highlighted deserve caution, I suppose. I can’t find the information now, but I’m sure I read that an insect that researchers were hoping would eliminate the fire ant had some problems of its own, and fears about its effect on the environment were leading to re-evaluation.

      Prickly pear can seem high on the unattractiveness scale when it’s cold or dry weather and it begins to just sit around and shrivel. But when it’s spring, and the rains have come, and the flowers appear? There’s nothing more beautiful.

    1. They can seem lit from within, Dina. I suppose it’s partly because of their size. It’s fairly easy to get down low and photograph sunlight shining through them — the “paper lantern” view is one of my favorites.

  11. What a lovely collection of yellow blossoms! They are all beautiful, though there is one with the single yellow against that blue sky — ah, just lovely!

    On work for a ‘game board’ I struggled in the corner that needed ‘desert’ images.. there was no place for ‘featured’ images like these… one can tell via these images how you love the opuntias!

    Last night, btw, I dreamed of the Pachamama Birding group – your friends (and mine!) We were all in a different location – who knows where, but all enjoying life….it was as if we visited in person! Please give them my love, and tell them to make sure you’re with them on the next dream visit!

    1. That yellow and blue combination is a sweet one. It’s really amazing how many shades of floral yellow there are, and yet they all look good against the sky.

      Thank you for mentioning that game board. It reminded me that I’d had the idea to create a kind of native plant bingo card for people at the community center where we’re going to be establishing a native plant garden. It seemed like a good idea to create a card with pictures of the plants going into the garden — education and fun, all in one nice package.

      Everyone’s been a little scattered in this last part of the summer — understandable. That’s probably why you dreamed of us all in different locations. We have been!

    1. Thanks, Maria. It was a good year for them, and I found them at just the right time. One of the big plants had tunas already ripening; it’s the first time I’ve seen tunas and flowers at the same time.

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