Opuntia fragilis (Brittle Prickly Pear)

Plant Info
Also known as: Fragile Prickly Pear, Little Prickly Pear
Family:Cactaceae (Cactus)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, sun; dry prairies, rock outcrops, sandy or gravelly soil
Bloom season:May - July
Plant height:2 to 8 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:none
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

Pick an image for a larger view. See the glossary for icon descriptions.

Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: 7+petals

[photo of flower] Flowers are showy, 1½ to 2 inches across, with 7 or more yellow petals that are sometimes reddish at the base. A green ovary protrudes in the center, surrounded by numerous white or red stamens with yellow tips. Flowers are few; many plants have no flowers or do not flower every year.

Leaves and stem: Leaf type: simple

[photo of stem segments] With cacti, the spines are modified leaves and the fleshy pad segments are modified stems. Spines are up to 1 inch long, sometimes longer than the pad, and typically straight, clustered in groups of 3 to 8, growing from numerous small projections (areoles) on the surface of the pad. The spines are not hooked but the areoles have tiny barbs (glochids) at the base of the spine cluster that easily detach and can be difficult to see, let alone remove once embedded in skin. The pads are a dull dark green, generally a somewhat flattened oval to elliptic shape, up to 2 inches long and ½ to 1 inch wide with a waxy surface. The segments detach very easily from each other. Plants are sprawling and can form a mat up to 2 feet across.

Fruit: Fruit type: barbed Fruit type: capsule/pod

Fruit is ½ to ¾ inch long, spiny, oval to somewhat cone-shaped, initially green to reddish, turning brown. Inside are numerous seeds.


There are 2 species of prickly pear cactus native to Minnesota, and about a dozen in North America. The flowers of the 2 natives are more or less the same. Distinguishing features are mostly the size and shape of the pads and number of spines. Plains Prickly Pear (Opuntia macrorhiza) has larger and more numerous flowers and much larger, broader, flattened pads that do not easily detach, with up to 6 spines per areole. When I discovered a small patch of Brittle Prickly Pear in the grass, I went to remove a rogue blade of grass before taking a photo and ever so slightly touched the spines of one of the end pads. It immediately broke off the rest of the plant and stuck to my hand. Ouch. Fruit does not often form so detaching like this is how it mostly spreads; the pads reroot themselves where they drop.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken at Interstate State Park, Chisago County. Other photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in a private garden in Lino Lakes.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Bear - SW MN in the area of the Jeffers Petroglyphs
on: 2012-01-04 13:32:24

These cacti grow in abundance all along the band of Sioux Quartzite known locally as the Red Rock Ridge especially in the area of the Jeffers Petroglyphs. Some years the conditions are just right and they give a beautiful carpet of flowers, although walking among them is a bit hazardous as the spines are hard and sharp enough to penetrate all but the toughest shoe soles and have no problem at all jabbing through the uppers of any footwear. My grandfather claimed they could flatten vehicle tires as well, but I have my doubts about that one.

Posted by: Jeanne - SW MN
on: 2012-06-09 00:45:29

They are starting to bloom at Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne. You'll find them all over the Sioux Quartzite here as well.

Posted by: Mary - Central MN
on: 2012-08-11 18:51:41

I noticed several patches when mowing my ditch. Very small but plentiful growing in sand. Normally the county/township mows but it's been a dry year. There is an abandoned rock quarry across the road, but I don't recall ever seeing any there.

Posted by: Mathew - St. Cloud, MN
on: 2014-03-31 15:02:51

There is a large patch of Native brittle prickly pear cactus around St. Cloud, MN that will be destroyed for a road. Is this plant protected in anyway. This is by far the larges group that I know of and hate to see that it will be removed from the world just for a road. I want to write a story about the location and what it means to save this cactus. Can you help me out? Mathew

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2014-04-08 09:17:16

I'm afraid O. fragilis is not considered a rare species in MN and you may have a difficult time stirring up enough passion in people to save this particular population. When it's economics vs. the environment, economics usually wins. :-(

Posted by: Holly - central mn
on: 2014-05-12 18:45:39

Where in St. Cloud is this cactus I would like to see these before they are gone..

Posted by: Jerold - Jeffers Petroglyphs
on: 2014-06-26 14:16:48

WE caught these during the first day in bloom at the Jeffer's Petroglyphs. Really beautiful!

Posted by: Amy - Central Minnesota
on: 2014-06-29 21:49:04

Dear Matthew, this cactus spreads easily. Even when the road project is done, you may see the cactus return in the area. We had these planted in our yard, but with small kids, we dug them up. We then re-graded the area, twice, and this year as i was weeding, I had a dozen small cacti coming up. It was 4 years ago when i had dug them up.

Posted by: Samantha
on: 2014-10-14 22:41:02

I went and saw them and had trouble identifying them because the flowers weren't producing fruits. Why is this?

Posted by: mike - redwood falls area along minnesota river
on: 2015-06-28 16:05:15

i ran into a patch near granite outcroppings on the Minnesota river. cool to see cactus in Minnesota. got a picture of it with flowers. it appears that they grow in many areas of Minnesota so it does not seem that you activists will have to put a bunch of people out of work this time. I love the outdoors also but my question is, if you were able to remove people so all wildlife could grow as naturally as it did before we were here, it wouldn't matter if the cactus were here or not. the dear are probably tired of getting stuck in the nose by the needles anyway.

Posted by: Thomas
on: 2016-04-04 10:54:55

I have seen the prickly pear cactus at Blue Mound state park and at the Pipestone National Monument. I would like to cactus in other Minnesota locations. If anyone could give specific locations, I would appreciate the info. Thanks

Posted by: Nina - Northfield
on: 2016-05-14 21:12:42

Found several plants growing along the train tracks today!

Posted by: Bob - North Branch
on: 2016-07-10 12:05:23

I have a mat growing in the corner of my yard started from a couple pieces my ma gave me 19-20 years ago. she had started hers probably 20 before that when she was given a couple of pieces. she was in Richfield

Posted by: Kurt - St Cloud
on: 2017-05-29 19:28:40

On 15 going south out of St Cloud, the 33rd Street South exit, where that huge outcropping of rock is next to the on-ramp. they're all over the place. I was excited to see real native cactus, and came across this web page while trying to look up what native cactus is in MN.

Posted by: Linda S - Cambridge
on: 2017-07-15 07:38:15

I have the prickly pear cactus growing in my garden, it's blooming now, with yellow red throated flowers.

Posted by: Tom W - Interstate State Park
on: 2020-02-11 14:31:49

I found two small clusters of this on the cliffs along the trail between the campground and the main pothole area. They were on exposed outcroppings.

Posted by: Dustin L Corkill-Bomgaars - Minneapolis
on: 2020-07-19 22:04:37

Among the rocks at Interstate State Park you'll find them growing wild.

Posted by: Marti pahl - Ramsey, Anoka County
on: 2021-09-09 15:49:30

I have several Opuntia fragilis (Brittle Prickly Pear) growing wild in my yard. I have fenced the areas where they are located so I don't now over them. I love these cactus, cause it reminds me of my home.

Posted by: Mark Folkestad - Belgrade
on: 2022-05-22 22:05:08

I had a patch of brittle prickly pear at my former lake home on the north end of the east side of Green Lake, in Kandiyohi County. It was mostly on the south side of my boathouse. Some of my neighbors used to also have small patches.

Posted by: Dan - St. Cloud
on: 2023-06-22 22:36:05

For those wondering about bulldozing these plants south of St. Cloud, they were identified prior to construction and large portions were dug up from the outcroppings and transplanted in other areas with similar conditions but no cacti (many were relocated to Cold Spring area specifically, literally 5-gallon buckets full). I was there when they relocated them actually, so not a total loss for this neat cacti at least.

Posted by: Justin B - Blue Mound State Park
on: 2023-10-16 11:07:11

Found a couple plants!

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