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16 Different Types of Prickly Pear Cactus (With Pictures)

prickly pear cactus

The prickly pear cactus, or opuntia cactus, is a genus of flowering cactus and has the shape of a pear, hence their common name. There are dozens of varieties of prickly pears, with many of them being found in deserts of the United States and some grown as ornamentals in homes and other buildings. Prickly cactus can hybridize, which means that they cross with other species of prickly pear, and new hybrid species are being discovered. Although opuntia cactus do not have spines in the traditional sense, they do have glochids, which can appear fluffy but are extremely unpleasant to the touch.

Below are 16 of the most common types of prickly pear cactus, including those with edible fruits, called tunas, that are even turned into candy and jam.

garden flower divider

The 16 Different Types of Prickly Pear Cactus

1. Bearded Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia strigil
Location: Chihuahua Desert
Height: 3 feet
Flower Color: Cream
Fruit Color: Red

The bearded prickly pear grows to a height of approximately 3 feet, and because of its plentiful brown spines, it can appear quite disorderly. The plant grows at elevations of up to 4,000 feet and it has flowers that are cream or pale yellow with small, bright red fruit.


2. Beavertail

beavertail cactus
Image Credit: Pi-Lens, Shutterstock
Scientific name: Opuntia basilaris
Location: Mojave
Height: 18 inches
Flower Color: Rose
Fruit Color: Brown

The beavertail prickly pear is easily recognized for its bright pink flowers and its beavertail-shaped pads. It grows to around 1.5 feet tall and flourishes in some of the driest and hottest deserts in the US and Mexico. Growers will need to replicate these conditions with little to no water, which makes propagation a challenge in some climates.


3. Blind Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia rufida
Location: Chihuahua desert
Height: 6 feet
Flower Color: Yellow to orange
Fruit Color: Red

The blind prickly pear is a trunked cactus with a lot of branches. The plant can grow to 6 feet tall but more commonly attains a height of 5 feet. It has circular pads with short spines. Flowers start out bright yellow and fade to orange as they age, while the fruit is approximately one inch long and red in color.


4. Brown-Spined Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia phaeacantha
Location: Gobi Desert
Height: 3 feet
Flower Color: Yellow
Fruit Color: Red or purple

The brown-spined prickly pear, also known as the tulip prickly pear, grows to approximately 3 feet tall. Their bright yellow flowers are attractive, and this is one prickly pear plant that is considered easy to care for. It does prefer hot and dry conditions but can actually survive the occasional frost, so it can be grown in a wider range of climates than other opuntias.


5. Engelmann’s Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia engelmannii
Location: Chihuahua desert
Height: 5 feet
Flower Color: Yellow
Fruit Color: Red or purple

Native to California, Arizona, Texas, and northern Mexico, the Engelmann’s prickly pear is a reasonably fast-growing cactus that can achieve a height of 5 feet and 15 feet wide, which makes it a good choice for filling spaces in a desert garden. Also known as the tulip prickly pear, the plant will grow bright yellow flowers every year with edible fruits that appear red to purple in color.


6. Hedgehog Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia erinacea
Location: Mojave
Height: 18 inches
Flower Color: Yellow or pink
Fruit Color: Red

The hedgehog prickly pear, which also goes by the names Mojave or grizzly bear prickly cactus, is recognized for its dense accumulation of spines. Some of the thicker spines point downwards while long, thin spines point upwards, and this nonuniform arrangement can give the plant a somewhat shaggy appearance. This is another prickly cactus species that is frost tolerant, and it has yellow flowers with green fruits that have a red tinge to them.


7. Indian Fig Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia ficus indica
Location: Southern and Central America
Height: 16 feet
Flower Color: Yellow
Fruit Color: Red

The Indian fig prickly pear is a fast-growing prickly pear that is found throughout the US and Mexico. It can grow to a height of 15 feet or more and has yellow flowers and edible red fruits. The plant requires and needs very little watering, and its fast-growing nature makes it popular in gardens.


8. Pancake Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia chlorotica
Location: Mojave
Height: 7 feet
Flower Color: Yellow and red
Fruit Color: Purple

The pancake prickly pear gets its name for its pancake-shaped pads that are circular in shape but have a bluish color to them. The plant will grow to 7 feet and grows yellow flowers that have a red center. The fruit is fleshy and purple in color, and the pancake prickly pear is found in the Mojave and the Sonoran desert.


9. Plains Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia polycantha 
Location: Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahua deserts
Height: 1 foot
Flower Color: Orange
Fruit Color: Brown

The plains prickly pear is commonly seen in Nebraska but can grow in many climates across the US. It has shallow roots, which means it can be susceptible to heavy rainfall but also allow it to more easily catch what little rain does fall in its habitat. It is a relatively small species, growing to just 12 inches in height, and it gives orange flowers with tan-colored fruit.


10. Purple Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia violacea
Location: Chihuahua desert
Height: 4 feet
Flower Color: Yellow
Fruit Color: Green

The purple prickly pear gets its name from the attractive color of its pads rather than its flowers, which present as yellow, or its fruit, which are green. The pads appear green under normal conditions but take on a purple tinge when in cool and dry conditions. The cactus does well in full sun and requires very little watering whatsoever when it is established.


11. Purple-Fruited Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia phaeacantha
Location: Chihuahua desert
Height: 3 feet
Flower Color: Yellow
Fruit Color: Purple

The purple-fruited prickly pear, or New Mexico prickly pear, grows in sandy soils and can thrive in rocky conditions. Its flowers are yellow with a red center, and its fruit is purple, hence its name. The cactus blooms from March to May and is pollinated by insects.


12. Santa Rita Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia violacea
Location: Chihuahua desert
Height: 6 feet
Flower Color: Yellow
Fruit Color: Green

The Santa Rita prickly pear is a very attractive cactus often grown as an ornamental plant. It has round pads that change color from gray to purple and back again over the course of the year. The pads are purple when the temperature is cold and change to gray again during the summer months.


13. Smooth Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia humifusa
Location: Great Basin
Height: 2 feet
Flower Color: Yellow
Fruit Color: Green

The smooth prickly pear is one of few species of prickly pear that tends to grow with no spines, although some plants do have short spines. The plant grows to a height of about 2 feet, offers yellow flowers with some red, and bears somewhat unremarkable fruit.


14. Spiny-Fruited Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia spinusbacca
Location: Chihuahua desert
Height: 4 feet
Flower Color: Orange
Fruit Color: Green

The spiny-fruited prickly pear grows to approximately 4 feet in height and is common in the Chihuahua Desert. It gives yellow flowers that have red bases, and its fruit is yellow-green in color but is most remarkable for the fact that the fruits are, like the plant itself, covered in spines.


15. Texas Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia lindheimeri
Location: Texas
Height: 5 feet
Flower Color: Yellow
Fruit Color: Purple

Named for the fact that it is commonly found in regions of Texas, the Texas prickly pear forms in thickets and can achieve a height of 5 feet. It has a central trunk, although this may lay flat rather than upright, and the Texas prickly pear has yellow flowers and purple fruits.


16. Tuberous Prickly Pear

Scientific name: Opuntia macrorhiza
Location: Sonoran desert
Height: 6 inches
Flower Color: Yellow or red
Fruit Color: Red

The tuberous prickly pear is a slow-growing cactus that will not usually reach one foot in height. It has large roots that are tubular in shape and the plant has flowers that are yellow with a red base or completely red and spineless fruit that is red in color.

garden flower divider

Conclusion

The prickly pear is, in most cases, a genus of spiny cactus that is flowering and produces fruit, called tunas, and are not only found throughout the US and Mexico but are also grown for their ornamental properties. They are also cultivated for their edible fruits, which, in some cases, can be eaten raw and are often turned into candy and other foods.  Above are 16 of the most common and popular prickly pear species, many of which can flourish in gardens or indoor pots, as well as in deserts and arid regions.


Featured Image Credit: Lena Maximova, Shutterstock

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