Plains Prickly-pear Cactus
Opuntia polyacantha Haw.
General: perennial, forming rounded clumps 10-30 cm tall,
often spreading into mats several meters broad. The stem
joints obovate to almost round in outline, strongly flattened,
mostly 5-15 cm long, not readily detached from the plant,
covered with many areoles, often
each with tawny spine-like bristles
and 5-11 straight
spines 1-5 cm long, only slightly barbed, if at all so.
Flowers: solitary at branch tips, 5-7 cm broad, borne
in areoles of previous years' growth. The many sepals in
several series, greenish on the outside, often grading into
the numerous broad, yellowish to red or reddish-purple
Stamens numerous, in a central cluster, shorter
than the petals. Stigma with
5-8 short lobes.
Flowering time: May-June.
Fruits: dry berries, pear-shaped, about 2.5 cm long,
spine-covered. Seeds strongly flattened, usually disc-
Dry areas, from the plains into the foothills and lower
mountains, in w. and c. parts of MT. Also
from B.C. to
Alberta, to e. OR, AZ, TX and MO.
Edible and Medicinal plant, see below.
(click on image for full size)
Pricky-pear cactus fruits were widely used for food, either raw or dried for storage. Most of the spines were removed by sweeping piles of fruit with sagebrush branches or by burning the spines off. The spines that remained were picked off with fingers protected by deerskin tips. The fruits were first split to remove the seeds, and then eaten raw or cooked in stews and soups, which they thickened. Raw cactus stems taste like cucumber, but they were usually eaten only when there was a shortage of food. Settlers boiled them to remove the spines, and then fried the pulpy interior. They were also dipped in a syrup made from boiling sweetcorn seeds and then eaten. The seeds can be dried, parched and ground into a meal, then added to flour and used in making cakes etc. When forage was limited, the spines were singed off and cactus stems were fed to livestock.
The plant has numerous minutely barbed glochids (hairs) that are easily dislodged when the plant is touched and they then become stuck to the skin where they are difficult to see and remove. They can cause considerable discomfort.
Pricky-pear cactus was used medicinally by the Flathead, Okanagan-Colville, and Sioux Indians. The stems
are urine-inducing and have agents that cause tissue to contract. An infusion of stems was taken for diarrhea.
A poultice of flesh was applied to skin sores and infections. Stems were peeled and used for wounds, and
were smashed and used for backaches.
The peeled stems have been used as a mordant in fixing dyes. A pink to red dye is obtained from the fruit. A gum is obtained from the stem that can be used as an adhesive.
Our specimen belong to var. polyacantha Haw.
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