Boerne Chapter

Prickly Pear Cactus—A Good Choice for The State Plant

By Delmar Cain

In the last article for Native Grown I reported that the prickly pear cactus was selected by the Texas Legislature in 1995 to be the State Plant of Texas. That information probably came as a bit of a surprise to some of you as it did to me. But on reflection I can think of no more appropriate choice to be representative of the Lone Star State.

The “prickly pear cactus” is not the name for a single species. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture “prickly pear” in the cactus family is the common name for the genus Opuntia, which contains fifty-nine different species. Included in the genus are species that I would not have called a prickly pear. For instance the tasajillo (Opuntia leptocaulis) or Christmas cactus as it is sometimes known and the tree cholla (Opuntia imbricata) or walkingstick cholla are in the prickly pear genus, as you can see by the scientific names.

Yellow flower on a cactus
Prickly Pear Cactus in bloom

When I think of a prickly pear cactus, I think of a cactus with shallow roots, flattened oblong 4 to 10 inch pads, joined either end to end or branching, that reclines or grows to a total height of about 4-6 feet with green or red pear-shaped fruit pods in the late spring. Technically I have found that what I have described is one of several species in the genus Opuntia, subgenus Opuntia. The one we see most often in the Boerne area is the Lindheimer prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri).

Oh, there is something that I failed to mention. The prickly pear that I know silently, but effectively proclaims, “Don’t mess with me, Texan!” Those flattened joints or pads called cladodes, cladophylls or phylloclads have both long spines and smaller ones called “glochids” that can put some hurt on the unwary or the unbeliever. The smaller of the two are too big to leave in your skin, but almost too small to see to get out. Misery.

So why do I think that the prickly pear cactus is a well chosen state plant for Texas? First, it is Texas tough. To survive and thrive in Texas, which includes habitats as diverse as the Piney Woods of East Texas and the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas that includes a part of the eastern range of the Chihuahuan Desert is impressive. Areas in the Piney Woods may averages 50 plus inches of annual rainfall, while areas of the Trans-Pecos may average as little as 8 inches. A single species of prickly pear does not cover that entire range but similar varieties can be found in the whole of the area.

Second, the prickly pear is useful to wildlife and domestic animals. Small mammals and birds feed on its fruit and find that the spaces between its spiny pads provide excellent protection. Because each fruit or tuna produces a large number of sweet, tasty and nutritious seeds (more than 200 per fruit) larger mammals from raccoons to horses have a reliable food source in the August heat when many other plants are struggling. And we have all heard that when the thorns are removed by burning in times of drought, cattle and other domestic animals will eat and survive on the pads.

Image of cactus, teres in the backdrop
Healthy Prickly Pear with Tuna

Third, the prickly pear has a well-documented history of being useful to man. Matt Turner, who spoke at one of our NPSOT meetings here in Boerne, reports in his book, Remarkable Plants of Texas (p. 250), that, “Practically every part… including stems, flowers, fruit, seeds, thorns, and even sap has been used from prehistoric to contemporary times by every culture from Native Americans and Spanish colonial to Hispanic and Anglo Texians, cowboys and even connoisseurs of southwestern cuisine.” Each group exhibited its creativity in turning the abundant resource into foods, into medicines and surprisingly into utensils. Even the pests of the prickly pear have been used with the cochineal bugs, which feed on the pads, providing the red dye for the military coats of the British.

Those are enough good reasons for me to applaud the, dare I say it, wisdom of the Legislature in declaring the prickly pear our State Plant. Well, there I have said it.

But I would not want to leave the subject without raising an issue of some concern. Although the prickly pear is one tough plant it is not invincible, contrary to the opinion of some who have tried to eradicate it from their land. It has its own set of native enemies that it has successfully competed against for millennia. Now a foreign one lurks on the eastern horizon. But that is a story that will have to wait for another column.

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