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Fragile Prickly-pear Opuntia fragilis


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Fragile Prickly-pear
credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

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Alternate name: Pygmy Prickly-pear

Family: Cactaceae, Cactus view all from this family

Description This small but clump-forming plant forms a low mat of spiny jointed stems whose segments are easily detached.
Habit: native perennial shrub; stems succulent; pads variable, cylindrical to pear-shaped to somewhat flat circles or ovals, each 0.5-2 in (12-50 mm) long, 0.5-1.25 in (12-30 mm) wide.
Height: 1-12 in (2-30 cm); to 3 ft (1 m) diameter.
Leaf: spine, rigid, straight, sharp, white to pale gray, brown tipped, to 1 in long; in cluster of 2-8 per areole.
Flower: pale greenish-yellow to lemon yellow, 1.5-2 in wide.
Fruit: spiny berry, pear or egg-shaped, green or red becoming tan, wrinkled, fig-like, 0.4-1.2 in long, 0.3-0.6 in diameter.

Warning Most cacti of the genus Opuntia have sharp spines as well as tiny barbed hairs called glochids that can be difficult to remove from the skin.

Flower May to July, if conditions are right.

Habitat Dry open areas; barren areas in grasslands, woodlands, abandoned pastures, prairies, sagebrush; sandy, gravelly, and saline clay soils, on outcrops of granite, limestone, or quartzite; to 8000 ft (2400 m); also cultivated as an ornamental.

Range Western and central North America, from southern British Columbia; and Washington, south on the east side of the Cascade Mountains to northern California and northern Arizona; east to northern Texas, northeast to Iowa and Illinois, southern Michigan, and Ontario.

Discussion Also known as brittle pricklypear, pygmy prickly pear, little prickly pear, brittle cactus, fragile cactus, jumping cactus. Four varieties and subspecies have been proposed. This plant is under some sort of protection in Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin. It is considered weedy or invasive in some areas; the easily detached stem segments contribute to plant dispersal. Opuntia fragilis is the most widespread low prickly-pear, and the most cold-tolerant of all cacti.