Opuntia macrorhiza (Plains Prickly Pear)

Plant Info
Also known as: Twist-spine Pricklypear
Family:Cactaceae (Cactus)
Life cycle:perennial
  • State Special Concern
Habitat:part shade, sun; dry prairies
Bloom season:May - July
Plant height:2 to 12 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, 2 to 3 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 yellow or red stamens with yellow tips. There may be 1 to several flowers around the tip end of a pad.

Leaves and stems: 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 2½ inches long and typically straight, clustered in groups of 1 to 6, 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 to blue green, generally a flattened round, oval or egg shape, 2 to 5 inches long and 2 to 4 inches wide with a waxy surface. The segments do not easily detach from each other. Plants can form a mat up to 5 feet across.

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

[photo of fruit] Fruit is fleshy, green to reddish, shaped like an inverted cone, 1 to 1½ inches long. Inside are numerous seeds.


There are 2 species of prickly pear cactus native to Minnesota, one of which is Brittle Prickly Pear (Opuntia fragilis), though there is confusion and debate over the name of the second species. Some call it O. humifusa, others O. macrorhiza., and still others are unclear whether these are actually distinct and separate species. In the meantime, the DNR lists O. macrorhiza so that's what we're going with. A rose by any other name...? 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. Brittle Prickly Pear has much smaller pads that easily detach and up to 8 spines per areole. Plains Prickly Pear is way overlooked as an interesting garden species. It will thrive in any hot summer location, from clay to sandy soils, as long as site is hot and well drained. New starts are easy—just cut off and root a year old pad, any time of year. It also germinates readily from seed though maturation period is numbers of years. I've used long handled forceps and leather gloves to get at weeds growing between the pads—dangerous work, but worth it!

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk, taken in Renville County, along a country road in North Dakota, and in a private garden in Lino Lakes


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

Posted by: Jan - Brainerd
on: 2012-02-05 17:00:39

You should put some information about minnesota plains...... not just the stuff on the plains!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Duh

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2012-02-06 16:24:14

If you are looking for general information about the plains, there are many other resources for that kind of information. The DNR has fair amount of information about various eco-types in Minnesota. Here is a starting point: habitat descriptions

BTW, the Minnesota Wildflowers web site is designed to be a plant identification resource. We only mention the general types of habitat where a particular species may be found. This is intentional, as we aren't out to duplicate others' works, but provide info about MN plants you can't really get anywhere else. :-)

Posted by: Jeanette - Mankato
on: 2014-05-24 10:55:03

Have prickle pear cactus that has been planted off my patio for about 8 years. This winter was the first that I did not cover it. I know others in Mankato do not cover them and they do well. This year my cactus is brown and limp. Will it come out of this? We have been wet here.

Posted by: Brian - St. Peter
on: 2015-01-19 01:09:38

There's a huge, beautiful plant of this species in cultivation at the Traverse des Sioux Garden Center in St. Peter. The owner told me that it came from a sandy area at the upper western part of the valley many years ago (the area has long since been converted to other uses, so no cacti are to be found there now).

Posted by: Lisa L - Quarry Park, St. Cloud, Minnesota
on: 2016-05-29 23:03:32

I found a few patches of these cacti growing in the granite fields at Quarry Park, near St. Cloud. They were just small, spines and (leaves) grew no bigger than my thumb, but they were there! I've read that these granite fields is one of the very most northern areas they are found. Quarry Park has numerous areas of unquarried granite fields, where you can find lots of flowers, and cacti.

Posted by: Jean - BLOOMINGTON,'m.
on: 2016-06-14 16:09:53

I have one in my garden,I've had it about 4years.I don't do anything to it in the winter.It's getting really big!

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