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Prickly Pears & Chollas
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Teddy-bear Cholla & Prickly Pear
Scientific classification
Many, see text

Opuntia is a genus in the cactus family Cactaceae. Both prickly pears and chollas are included in this genus of about 250 species distributed throughout most of the New World. The type species of the genus is the Indian Fig Opuntia Opuntia ficus-indica.

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Flower of Opuntia ficus-indica; note the two types of spines

Prickly pears, classified in the subgenus Opuntia, typically grow with flat, rounded segments that are armed with two kinds of spines; large, smooth, fixed spines and small, almost hairlike spines that easily penetrate skin and detach from the plant. Many types of prickly pear can grow into dense, tangled structures. Prickly pears are the only types of cacti normally found in the eastern United States, and are the most cold-tolerant of the cacti, extending north into southern Canada.

Chollas, classified in the subgenus Cylindropuntia, are distinguished by having cylindrical, not flattened, stem segments, and with the large spines barbed. Some botanists treat Cylindropuntia as a distinct genus. The stem joints of several species, notably the Jumping Cholla (Opuntia fulgida), are very brittle on young stems, readily breaking off when the barbed spines stick into clothing or animal skin; this helps distribute the cholla as when the stem falls off the person or animal, it is able to take root and grow where it falls. The barbed spines often remain embedded in the skin, causing significant discomfort and sometimes injury.

The fruit of opuntias, called tuna, is edible, although it has to be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin before consumption. It is often used to make candies and jelly. The young stem segments, called nopales, are also edible.

Prickly pears in Australia

Prickly pears (mostly O. stricta) were imported into Australia in the 1920s for use as a natural agricultural fence, but quickly became a widespread weed, rendering 40,000 km² of farming land unproductive. The Cactoblastis moth, a South American moth whose larvae eat prickly pear, was introduced in 1925 and almost wiped out the infestation. This case is often cited as a "textbook" example of successful biological pest control. The same moth, introduced accidentally further north of its native range into southern North America, is causing serious damage to some native species in that area.

Example species

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The nopal cactus is featured on the flag of Mexico.
  • Subgenus Opuntia True prickly pears. Often difficult to identify, due to hybridization.
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Opuntia brasiliensis
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Prickly Pear cactus
Prickly Pear
Prickly Pear

External link

  • Prickly Pear Cactus (http://www.desertusa.com/magoct97/oct_pa/du_prkpear.html) in the North American desert.
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Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa)
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New Mexico Prickly Pear (Opuntia phaeacantha)
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Opuntia vulgaris
from Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885
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cactus at Drumheller, Alberta

fr:Figuier de Barbarie es:Opuntia nl:Opuntia it:Opuntia


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