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Opuntia

Cactaceae
Cacti and succulents

The species described here originate in the desert Southwest and Mexico; other species are native to those areas and/or other parts of the western U.S., the Great Plains, Canada, and Florida. Most species fall into one of two sorts: those having flat, broad joints (pads), and those having cylindrical joints. Though the use of common names is somewhat inconsistent, members of the first group are often called prickly pear; those in the second group are frequently known as cholla. Hardiness is variable. Flowers are generally large and showy. The fruit is a berry, often edible.

Opuntia basilaris

Low-branching plant grows to 1 ft. high and 4 ft. wide. Oval to roundish gray-green to purplish pads are 2–12 in. wide and 1/2 in. thick, set with spines up to 2 in. long. Rich rose-purple, 2–3-in. spring flowers.

Opuntia bigelovii

Native to Southwest deserts and northern Mexico. Slow growing to 3–6 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide, with a treelike form. Woody trunk is covered with black spines, which are less conspicuous than their prominent yellow-gold sheaths. Cylindrical, easily detached joints are covered with vicious silvery yellow spines. Most plants never bloom, though they may bear 1–1 1/2-in. pale green, yellow, or white flowers (all with lavender markings) in early spring. Grows freely in the hottest, driest deserts.

Opuntia microdasys (photo courtesy of Debra Lee Baldwin)
Opuntia microdasys (photo courtesy of Debra Lee Baldwin)

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Opuntia microdasys

Fast growth to 2–3 ft. high and 4–5 ft. wide (much smaller in pots). Flat, thin, nearly round pads to 6 in. across, in a soft, velvety green; neatly spaced tufts of short golden bristles give a polka-dot effect. ‘Albispina’ has white bristles. New pads atop larger old ones give plant the shape of an animal’s head.

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