Texas is rich in nopal cacti (Opuntia spp.), also called prickly pear. More than 40 species and varieties grow in Texas, covering 25 to 35 million acres in all parts of the state except for northeast Texas. Nopals have flattened stems with oval joints called pads. Showy spring flowers produce oval fruits that are green at first. From summer into fall, fruits mature, usually turning red to purple. In 1995, the Texas Legislature declared the prickly pear as the official state plant.
Lindheimer Prickly Pear
The commonest and most widespread of the Texas nopals is Texas prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri, formerly Opuntia lindheimeri), common in drier areas of south and central Texas. Growing from 3 to 9 feet tall and 5 to 8 feet wide, the plant produces bright yellow flowers that ripen to red or purple fruits in July through September. Round pads and fruits are covered with yellow spines and glochids, which are fine hair-like spines. A variety with elongated pads, cow's tongue cactus (Opuntia lindheimeri var. linguiformis), is often grown as a garden plant. Texas prickly pear is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 6 through 9.
Tulip Prickly Pear
Ranging far over the southwestern U.S., tulip prickly pear (Opuntia phaeacantha), also called brownspine prickly pear, occurs in the western two-thirds of Texas. It has yellow to orange flowers with a maroon center and gray to black spines. Oval pads produce oval to goblet-shaped bright to deep red fruits from summer into fall. Plants are hardy in USDA zones 7 through 10.
Nopal fruit ripen when other forage is sparse, during the heat and drought of summer into fall. The fruits, also called tunas, provide valuable food for wildlife such as rodents, birds, deer, coyote, javelina, deer, foxes and raccoons. Often range animals such as cattle, goats and sheep eat them as well. Humans have used them for food from prehistoric times, with archaeological evidence indicating heavy use of the fruits as food for people who lived along the lower Pecos River. Today, people eat nopal fruits raw or use them for jellies and preserves, syrup and fermented juice.
Remove spines and glochids before eating fruits or processing them for food. The spines can cause problems in range animals that eat the fruits in quantity. Since forage is often scarce when nopal fruits are ripe, range animals, especially sheep and goats, can eat the fruits almost exclusively and become addicted to them, preferring to eat them even when other forage becomes available. Prolonged consumption leads to sores and infections from spines lodging in the mouth, lips, tongue and palate, and intestinal obstruction can result from accumulation of the hard, oval seeds.
- Texas A&M Agrilife Extension: Pricklypear Biology and Management
- Rangelands: Prickly Pear Cactus: A Texas Rangeland Enigma
- Texas A&M University Aggie Horticulture: Texas Prickly Pear, Nopal Prickly Pear, Lindheimer Prickly Pear
- OnlinePlantGuide.com: Opuntia Lindheimeri var. Linguiformis/Cow's Tongue Cactus
- Netstate.com: Texas: Texas State Plant
- OnlinePlantGuide.com: Opuntia Phaeacantha/Tulip Prickly Pear
- The University of Texas at Austin: Texas Beyond History: Prickly Pear
- Photo Credit Photos.com/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images