Prickly But Pretty

Opuntia cacanapa ~ El Capote Ranch, Gonzales County

By early July, the peak flowering of assorted Texas cacti has come to an end. The plants — claret cup, lace, hedgehog — fade back into the landscape, and even the more obvious pencil cactus can be hard to spot without its bright red fruit.

Even the best-known of our cacti, the prickly pear, rarely shows deep summer blooms. Still, occasional plants were producing their delightful flowers across the Texas hill country the first weekend in July.

Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri  ~ Old Willow City Road, Gillespie county

There are more species of prickly pear than I’d ever imagined, and distinctions among them sometimes depend on such small details as the number and arrangement of spines and glochids: a part of the cactus that, once encountered, never is forgotten. Flower color isn’t the best guide for prickly pear, since color variation occurs in all species.

I’m relatively certain that the identification of the first cactus, O. cacanapa, is correct. It’s worth noting that German geologist Ferdinand Roemer, for whom so many of our plants are named, visited the El Capote ranch during his collecting trip to Texas in 1845-1847.

While the other identifications are ‘best guesses’ based on size, spine color, and other factors, there’s no doubting the plants’ membership in the the genus Opuntia, or the beauty of their flowers.

Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa) ~ Sabinal river crossing, Bandera County


Comments always are welcome.

72 thoughts on “Prickly But Pretty

    1. They’re such pretty flowers. The flowers last only a day, but a plant can have many flowers that bloom sequentially. They certainly make the bees happy.

    1. They are like distilled sunshine, aren’t they? I didn’t expect to see any, since it’s so late in their season, but I was hoping — and lo! there they were.

  1. It is incredibly beautiful. I have never eaten prickly pear but it does appear in the markets here from time to time. I should give it a try. The challenge of trying new fruits is always something to look forward to.

    1. I have acquaintances in Rockport who posted a wonderful entry about how to prepare the tunas (the name of the fruits) for jellies, syrup, and such. If you’re not inclined to that much work or short on prickly pears, the syrup’s available for purchase. A prickly pear margarita can be very refreshing in the summer!

    1. I was surprised to find these, since it’s a little late in the season for them. In spring, at the height of their bloom, older, large plants can have hundreds of flowers. It’s especially fun to find them on the barrier islands, where they sometimes can be seen blooming at the edge of the water.

    1. I’d not heard of Shiner’s Prickly Pear, but a quick glance shows that a lot of people share your opinion. I think I’d rather have a cocktail made with the syrup — for one thing, it’s as pretty as those flowers!

      1. The beer was worth a try – just to find out that I won’t be buying any more. I’ve never heard of the syrup. May have to try that some time.

        1. You know what they say: you never try, you never know. And, as you point out, sometimes what you end up knowing is that you’re never going to try that again.

    1. I hope you share them if you do. Here are a few more from our barrier islands. It was an extraordinary bloom in 2018, but I didn’t see a single bloom along the Blue Water highway this year. Of course they had to be there, but like so many people, I wasn’t roaming quite as much.

    1. There’s an easy answer for that: pots. I keep my favorite outside my front door so I can roll it into the sunshine every day. For the first time since I’ve had it, there’s been no bloom this year, because I don’t have any direct sun on my patio, but I think I might see the beginning of a bud, at last.

  2. Another yellow flower!! So beautiful, but I imagine one glance at the size of those thorns would be sufficient to divert everybody from the attempt at picking it!

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who’s plucked one of these flowers. They only last for a day, and they don’t have a vase-worthy stem. I suppose they could be floated in water, but I’m not sure how well that would work. Next year, I’ll have to give it a try — but you’re centainly right about the need to pick the flower carefully.

    1. There weren’t many; these plants were the only ones I saw. There were perhaps two dozen flowers on the cactus at the Capote Ranch gate, but the other cacti had only three or four blooms each. Before that, the last prickly pears I’d seen blooming were on Galveston Island, in mid-June.

      There were rain lilies near the Capote Ranch, as well. I’d never come across any that were so tall, with such large flowers and such fragrance. I still have trouble sorting out rain lily species, but they certainly differed from the ones I see around here.

      1. To add to the rain lily confusion, the genus name has gotten changed from Cooperia to Zephyranthes, and the species that used to be drummondii is now chlorosolen, bumping the epithet drummondii over to what used to be Cooperia pedunculata. Marshall Enquist (p. 12) offers a way to distinguish the two species by the length of the floral tube.

        1. I noticed that name change when you used it on your blog. Last night, I read about the difference in the floral tubes in Eason. Given that, I’m fairly sure I found Z. chlorosolen. Even in photos, that long tube is easy to spot. Once I identify the species of insects that was munching on them, I’ll post them.

          Speaking of finding things, yesterday I got a “feeling” and sent an email to Shawn Benedict, the manager of the Sandyland Sanctuary. The notice on the site still said “closed,” but I thought an inquiry was worthwhile. Sure enough: he was given permission to open the place last Tuesday. You know where I’ll be on Sunday.

          1. I’d thought of ending my comment by saying I guessed you’d found chlorosolen. I decided against it because I didn’t want to prejudice you.

            Happy hunting on Sunday. Your destination has the initials of someone I know.

    1. Yes; each flower blooms for only one day, although they do bloom sequentially, and there may be multiple flowers on each pad. I’ve never noticed any scent, even on plants with multiple blooms. Perhaps when you’re this pretty and colorful, you don’t need scent to attract the pollinators.

  3. I keep thinking I want to plant a dry garden over at the shop but the place I was thinking of putting it is where the spray heads for the new septic system got put. I can probably still find a spot that won’t get watered. we had a prickly pear on the property back when we had the beach house. my mother would collect the ripe tunas every year and make prickly pear jelly.

    1. Your mother was a brave woman. The process of collecting the tunas and turning them into syrup or juice is do-able, but a little more work than I want to take on. Now, agarita? Making jelly from those berries is fun. Once you get everything settled with the new house and such, a good spot for some cacti might present itself.

    1. Isn’t that the truth? Roses and thorns come to mind, of course — although thorns of any sort are much easier to get out than those silly glochids. Duct tape’s not a bad solution, though it isn’t perfect.

  4. What a rich and vivid yellow. Without the flowers, there is no fruit and I’m told the jelly made from them is lovely. Haven’t gotten a chance to sample any though.

    1. I’ve had the jelly, and it is tasty. The syrup is nice, too, and it makes a fine addition to a Margarita. It’s a beautiful pink — quite different from the yellow flowers, but just as nice.

  5. Prickly Pear are so pretty when they bloom. Lovely pictures. Have you had any of the prickly pear candy that’s taking off now? Seems to be a big thing in Arizona.

    1. I hadn’t heard of prickly pear candy. It looks a little too sweet for me. Around here, it’s jelly and syrup that seem to be most popular, with the syrup being used in a variety of drinks and dishes. I like the flavor, but a taste now and then is enough. Nopalitos are a favorite, though, especially when they’re cooked up by someone who really knows what they’re doing.

      1. I will happily support your enthusiasm for nopal, or nopalitos. I’ve enjoyed that several times, with eggs, for breakfast, in Mexican restaurants in Mexico and also in Omaha. It’s a treat that is well worth trying whenever the opportunity arises.

        1. Absolutely. Of course, adding onion, peppers, and tomatoes to almost anything is worthwhile, especially at breakfast! Around here, you can find nopalitos breakfast tacos, which are especially good.

        1. I just found this comment in spam! How that happened, I don’t know. But–yes, by all means, try the syrup. Some people mix it with soda, like Campari. It makes a great summertime drink.

    1. I see that two I’ve pictured here are on the list of cacti problematic in Australia. It was interesting to read that biological control, in the form of an insect, as so successful in controlling the plants — at least in some areas.

      I once knew a headstrong person who was certain he knew how to control the prickly pear on his land; he went out with a shredder and went to work. Needless to say, more than a few of the pieces he created turned into new plants. I keep mine to a reasonable size by breaking off pads when they get too large. If I can’t resist sticking a pad into dirt, it’s not long before I’m growing another prickly pear.

  6. By the time I see the prickly pear, it is defrocked and in the market. Those blooms are real dazzlers and I had no idea they were so lovely. Splendid photos, too, Linda!

    1. Prickly pear flowers are among my favorites. They’re big, and the colors are wonderful. I like the buds, too; these look like the top of an art deco building. There are a few people who’ve made wine from the fruits — wouldn’t that be a treat for the Cork Poppers?

  7. Beautiful photos of one of my favorite blooming natives. I am not fond of the plant itself but the bloom led this cactus to a higher plane even though it is covered in horrid and injurious spines. I know that in south Texas, ranchers torch the big leaves and then either sell then or feed them to the cattle. My local HEB always has them in stock.

    1. At least the ranchers are smarter than a hill country friend who decided to rid himself of prickly pear by mulching it. That was one of the worst moves I’ve ever seen, given the plants ability to regenerate from unbelievably small pieces. A friend and I once stopped to photograph a truly huge prickly pear next to a driveway, and the homeowner came out to see what we were up to. He was worried that we were going to take some pads from the plant — he said his mother uses them to make dishes on special occasions. HEB’s good, but sometimes fresh is better!

      1. Oh no doubt about it- fresh cactus leaves are the best. Lots of folks make wine or jelly from the red fruit that forms after the blooms fall off but I bet you know about that as well. I love that story and I think that more than one rancher learned a lesson that was bought and paid for.

        1. You’d better believe it — although the friend who decided to shred the prickly pears was prickly himself, and not at all given to taking advice from other, more experienced friends. He learned his lesson, that’s for sure.

  8. We do a delicate dance with the prickly pear on our property as we try to keep it out of the yard near the house but leave it on the periphery where we can enjoy the blooms. At least that’s my excuse for leaving it out there – eradicating prickly pear is a sweaty, and often painful, task. Prickly pear leaves you alone if you leave it alone, and I really do think it is attractive.

    I have a good friend in Vanderpool who lives on the banks of the Sabinal. You must have been very close to his house when you took that last shot.

    1. You’ll appreciate the story I’ve told here to a couple of other commenters — a friend out of Kerrville once decided to eliminate the prickly pear from his property with a brush hog. You can imagine how that worked out.

      If your friend’s around Vanderpool, I would have been close. We might even have crossed paths here. Any chance he’s a philosopher, too?

      1. You were very close to him when you were at the Lost Maples General Store. He’d never admit to being a philosopher (he’s a down-to-earth, overly modest guy) but he and I have a wonderful time as we share stories and perspectives while we play golf. And he bakes a mean biscuit, too.

    1. I didn’t know that, but now I do. In fact, it seems there are three native species in your state. This article says that the eastern prickly pear is the most common, but two other species are there in isolated areas.

      What’s especially interesting about the brittle prickly pear (O. fragilis) is that the USDA map shows it in only one county in Illinois and one county in Texas; it’s more widespread elsewhere.

  9. One of my favorite stories about the senses, which I have shared with Steve S but not with anyone else I don’t think, has to do with a small Opuntia in my cactus collection. Many years ago I lived in a home with a nice big greenhouse in the back and had a very large collection of cacti and succulents. A friend told me about an acquaintance of his who loved cacti and who’d enjoy visiting my collection. The friend was blind but experienced the plants through his sense of touch and amazed me when running his fingers over one of my small Opuntias with thousands of those tiny spines that stick to your fingers like porcupine quills. Only not a one stuck to him. Amazing.

    I have yet to see a wild Eastern Prickly Pear, flowering or not, so appreciate the lovely image you’ve shared of the flowers. The coral colored bud of the Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri looks like it produced a lushly hued bloom.

    1. That is an amazing story. I can understand being able to avoid the spines, but coming away without a crop of embedded glochids takes it to another level. I’ve read about people who lose one sense but soon develop their other senses, and that certainly provides a great example. I wish I had that talent, believe me!

      I love the peach-colored flowers that sometimes show up. When I first saw them, I thought they were originally yellow-colored flowers that were in the process of fading, since the yellow often turn orange — like white rain lilies turning pink. Then one day I found a plant with the lovely peachy buds. It’s a purely subjective impression, but it always seems to me that the peachy buds are silkier than the yellow, but that could be because of the way the light hits them.

      1. I find cactus flowers to be among some of the most beautiful for the reason you mention. While not all have the same appearance, that silky sheen found on some is so rich and almost decadent in its beauty.

    1. That last photo is a gem — but thanks more to the flower than the photographer. I was tickled as could be that the pair was arranged as it was. As the old Doublemint gum advertisement used to have it, “Double your pleasure, double your fun!”

  10. These remind that when I was a young teenager I made a terrarium for some cacti, an old fish tank with some sand and rocks. I really enjoyed doing that, but have never done it since. Lovely photos of these amazing plants.

    1. I’d never thought of creating an environment for cacti. What a clever idea. If you were to do it today, I’ll bet you’d at least consider adding a lizard of some sort. I know there are people who keep iguanas and geckos as pets, and I’m sure they probably live in something like your terrarium. Cacti certainly are amazing, and the variety astonishes me. I’m not so fond of those creations you find in our big box store garden centers, since they’re often created by grafting, but the real thing in the wild is phenomenal.

    1. The good news is that I have some photos of the mature fruit — some from Galveston and some from the hill country. The hill country fruits are gorgeous. They’re less red than a deep burgundy: glossy and big. I’ll bet they would make a beautiful syrup.

  11. I knew that prickly pears had flowers, but didn’t realize how showy they are, really nice!
    I’ve seen the candied fruit a few times, but it didn’t look that appetizing, but I’d like to try the juice, it sounds great.

    1. They’re beautiful flowers — short-lived, but gorgeous. The fruit’s pretty, too, especially when it’s well ripened. The only thing is, it’s quite a process to pluck, singe, and peel the tunas. Still, once you get past the glochids, the preparation’s straightforward. Once you have the syrup or juice, you can make candy, or drinks, or use it in other recipes. Nice!

  12. I’m really impressed by the flowers of the eastern prickly pear – they’re fabulous! There were prickly pears where my parents lived in Spain, but their flowers weren’t quite so lovely. (I remember Mum telling me that she once picked one of the ‘pears’ – using something to protect her hand – and then wrapped it up and put it in her handbag. She remembered later but by then the glochids were everywhere in her bag. Oops!)

    1. Oh, my. Even now, I feel sympathy for your mother. I completely understand how she could have done that — those glochids are sneaky little things, and aren’t at all obvious. On the other hand, once they’re embedded, you can’t forget them. I’ve tried all the recommended solutions — duct tape and Elmer’s glue help, but they’re sure not perfect! Better to just admire the flowers, that’s for sure.

  13. These are all beautiful. In Florida, the ones I mostly see are the Caribbean Opuntia auberi or the extremely similar Mexican Opuntia cochenillifera which lack spines. They grow very easily and are very hardy. They also bear a smaller red flower which hardly opens. I don’t know if they were brought from Cuba but they are very abundant here. I have hardly seen prickly cacti, but that could be because I’m in too close to the city. Opuntia auberi does not grow spines. It is from Cuba.

    1. The only one of these that’s common in Florida is O. humifusa. The other two species aren’t shown there at all on the maps. Around here, prickly pear is often used as an urban landscaping plant, although it’s usually found around apartment complexes or larger homes with a lot of land. Not always, though. There are places I pass by that have allowed various cactus species to thrive, and some have to be eight to ten feet tall. They’re quite impressive, especially when the conditions are right for prolific blooming.

      I looked up O. auberi, and see what you mean about the semi-open flowers. Still, they’re such a nice color, and it’s interesting they way they’re arranged on the pads.

  14. I’ve always thought of flowers on a cactus as a juxtaposition. It just seems odd to combine something so pretty with so much “ouch!” potential – especially when I think of cactus as a desert plant. Flowers seem like a rainy spring thing.

    But then roses have thorns, and I don’t think twice about that.

    1. Out in the desert, cactus flowers are a rainy spring thing, too. I’ve only seen really big spreads of them once, in Nevada — all yellow and red as far as the eye could see. Since then, I’ve seen photos from bloggers who live in cactus-land, and before I die I really want to get to west Texas and the Big Bend for the cactus flowers there.

      One of our earliest cactus flowers belongs to the claret cup — it’s a stunner.

    1. It is amazing how such an assuming plant can put out such glorious flowers. I suppose it has to do something to attract its pollinators — they may not like the thorns any more than we do.

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