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Plant Highlight: Opuntia macrocentra


November 2010

Opuntia is the largest genus in the whole cactus family, and it also has the widest distribution, occurring from Canada all the way down to Argentina.  Many of these plants have edible fruits, giving rise to their common name of “prickly pear”.  A wonderful feature of many opuntias is that they make a colorful display twice a year, first when they come into flower, and then again when their fruits come ripe.

Opuntia macrocentra is one of the prickly pears native to the U.S., where it grows in Texas, Arizona, and across the border in northern Mexico as well.  It is not a tall plant, seldom reaching much more than 2 feet in height (60 cm).  Plants expand laterally over time, eventually giving rise to a good-sized clump.

The rounded pads are blue-green in color, often tinted purple where plants are exposed to strong light, and they have a few long spines.  The pads are often incorrectly referred to as leaves, though they are in fact stem segments.  In spring, Opuntia macrocentra has large yellow flowers, to 3 inches across (7.5 cm), usually with red centers.  In fall, the showy reddish-purple fruits once again attract attention.