Prickly Pear – Opuntia phaeacantha polycantha

Prickly Pear Cactus with 4 flowers

When we lived in Colorado this was the most abundant cactus around us. It grew everywhere. It lead to my husband telling new comers that ‘if it is green or brown, growing on the ground it has prickles!’ We had to clear enough cactus for our home, for a driveway and a place to park the car. We marked off areas that were not to be disturbed, because we wanted the tunas (fruit) to make jam from!


Thought to have originated in central Mexico the Prickly pear cactus is now widespread being found in Southern Nevada, Utah, Colorado, southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, western Kansas, Oklahoma, and the western two-thirds of Texas. Also in the  Great Basin, Mojave, and Chihuahuan Deserts. It is found scattered through woodlands of Pinyon Pine and juniper.

Prickly pear cactus is used in Mexican traditional medicine as a treatment for diabetes, and initial research supports this use. Just 50 years ago it was an almost forgotten remnant of Mexico’s Aztec past, grown by poor indigenous families in their backyards as an insurance against food shortages. Prickly pear fruits would have provided a good source of protein, vitamin C, potassium, and calcium. Today jam is still made from the fruit and relished!

Ripe prickly pear fruits are still one of the most important wild plant dye sources for traditional Navajo rug weavers. A variety of rose and pink dyes can be made from the ripe cactus fruit


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