As a child wandering the sandy Wisconsin River valley, I found prickly pear once in a while. They seemed mysterious and almost magical; the idea of cactus living in Wisconsin seemed impossible to me at the time. They even bloomed. But it was hard to imagine them living under the cold snow in our long winters. Many years later I learned they have grown in those sandy areas for a very long time and had prior experience high in the Andes and at the far end of Argentina; they are very cold hardy and were right at home.
Visiting the Sonoran desert this winter, it was quickly apparent that opuntia are even more at home here, and there are a great many species. They suddenly became more interesting. You probably think of 'prickly pear' as the cactus with flat green pads that seem pegged together, one stacked on the other. That's what all the pictures show, and they are iconic images for desert scenes, along with the saguaros. But that commonly seen cactus is only one of almost countless prickly pear family members.
In Sonoran desert towns, cactus are garden plants. Walking about in city neighborhoods is a great way to see many different cactus. Some are very old, their large nopales (pads) towering overhead. Many are cultivated for different uses. They interbreed easily so identifying them can be difficult.
(This reminds me of trying to identify lichens. If you follow my lichen blog, you'll know about trying to identify lichens...not for the faint of heart!)
|Opuntia aciculata-cowboy whiskers prickly pear|
Remembering one or two characteristics of each does help sort them out.
Prickly pear flowers come in many colors, and like most cactus, are spectacular and well worth the long wait for a good season of blooms.