This Engelmann prickly pear is one of several varieties of the cactus and is the most common.

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The prickly pear is one of the most easily identifiable cacti in the region, though telling one species from another can be a chore.

The Engelmann prickly pear, with its segmented, flat pads, 3-inch spines, yellow flowers and red fruit, is the most common, said Mark Dimmitt, longtime director of natural history at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and author of “Plant Ecology of the Sonoran Desert Region.”


The prickly pear provides shelter and nourishment for a host of desert creatures. Packrats nest amid clumps of the plants. Rattlesnakes follow the packrats, as do kissing bugs. It’s not just the spines you have to worry about.

The flesh of the prickly pear is eaten by packrats, jackrabbits, javelinas and humans.

The young pads of prickly pear, nopales, are a staple of Mexican cuisine — sautéed with onion in a red chile sauce or sliced into a salad with radishes and tomatoes.

Like many indigenous plants in these “locavore” times, nopales have migrated to the menus of non-Mexican restaurants.

The red fruit, or tuna, is used to make syrups and jellies, and it shows up on fancy cocktail menus, flavoring martinis and margaritas.

The prickly pear is the state plant of Texas. Here in Arizona, we can do better than that — but that’s another subject (object).

Contact reporter Tom Beal at or 573-4158.