Plains Prickly Pear Cactus

The plains prickly-pear has a beautiful flower that is worth watching for.

As I hiked near Tex Creek east of Idaho Falls, I tried to step gingerly through the sagebrush, but the sharp spines of the low-growing cactus easily penetrated the nylon outer layer of my boots, the waterproof lining and my sock, making me jump with pain and long for the days of all-leather boots.

Cacti (plural of cactus) are generally considered desert species, and indeed many species thrive in the Sonoran, Chihuahuan and Mojave deserts of the southwest. However, there are seven different species in Idaho, with several growing almost to treeline in certain areas. The most common cactus outside the true desert areas is probably, Opuntia polycantha, a.k.a., great plains, plains, panhandle or starvation prickly-pear cactus. The genus, Opuntia, is generally known as the prickly-pears and four of Idaho’s seven cacti are of this genus of cold-tolerant cacti.

Opuntia polycantha, I’ll just call it plains prickly-pear, is found from Texas and Oklahoma west to the Pacific and north well into several Canadian provinces. It prefers desert-like conditions and can be found in grassland, sagebrush and rocky habitats.

Plains prickly-pear is a relatively short plant, seldom exceeding 16 inches in height. It has green flattened palm to hand-sized stems and like most other cacti, is armored with spines an inch or more long. Besides these long spines, there are clusters of tiny spines called glochids. These are actually the more dangerous of the spines as they are small, easily dislodged and difficult to remove. And, they are very painful, possibly containing chemical irritants. This plant can create large areas where people and animals won’t want to travel in.

Plains prickly-pear has a storied history with humans. Native Americans depended on this plant for sustenance in several forms. First, the fruits, if prepared properly, are edible and tasty. A Forest Service website claims that, “The fruits or ‘tunas’ are cut in half and seeds removed. They resemble pomegranates in color, taste, and texture.” They can be eaten raw or prepared into jams and jellies and the seeds are edible as well. The pads or stems are also tasty in a number of ways. However prepared, it is always important to remove the spines and glochids, either by burning them off or cooking the pad then peeling back the skin.

Livestock operators are less enthusiastic about plains prickly-pear as it can actually thrive under drought conditions and continue to spread, reducing areas where livestock can forage without getting a snout full of needles. However, this propensity to expand under dry conditions is also considered a blessing of sorts. The cacti provide a refuge for grass and other native seedlings and when wetter weather returns and the cactus bugs and borers force the cactus to recede, grasses and other native plants thrive.

While plains prickly-pear seldom grows in huge patches in Idaho, in Texas and Oklahoma large stands of prickly-pear are used as a forage source during drought. Ranchers will burn a patch to remove the spines and glochids and their livestock will then readily eat it.

Over the next month, plains prickly-pear will be in bloom, starting with the lowest elevations. The flowers are large, yellow and with many stamens. That is a good, but clinical description. They are also strikingly beautiful and worthy of a prolonged look. Don’t miss the chance to see them.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho