Ranging from Canada to Mexico, plains pricklypear (Opuntia polyacantha, Cactaceae) is common throughout much of the west. One of several dozen native pricklypears, this particular species is well-adapted to a variety of habitats. This cactus can be found anywhere from the prairies and badlands of the western Great Plains to the pinyon-juniper woodlands and chaparral of mountain foothills.
Although the prominent paddle-shaped structures of this plant appear leaf-like, they’re actually flattened, fleshy stems. These stems bear yellow, orange, or magenta flowers that give way to reddish fruit later in the season.
This pricklypear has also been called “starvation cactus.” Although unappealing, the fruit and stems can be eaten and have been compared to cucumber and okra. A number of other animals also eat this cactus including several insects, turtles, prairie dogs, pronghorn, and livestock. It’s perhaps most appealing to large mammals like pronghorn and livestock after fires have burned off the formidable spines and bristles.