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Engelmann's Prickly Pear

Natural History

Prickly pear are members of the Opuntia genus, a group which includes other spiny cacti like chollas. Four characteristics distinguish Opuntia from other cactus:

They have jointed segments (though unlike chollas, the segments grow in flat pads)
The areoles (roundish pads which produce spines) have minute barbed spines called glochids that are easily detachable (from experience I can say that these are much worse than the larger thorns)
Rudimentary leaves are present on new joints
Their seeds have a pale covering called an aril
Prickly pear range throughout the lower and middle elevations of the Sonoran desert (the Engelmann's is the most common prickly pear seen in Arizona) and are an important source of food and shelter for several desert animals. Packrats often build dens at the base of the plant, which in turn provides protection from some predators. The pads are eaten by a few animals including javelinas, jackrabbits and packrats which are able to process the high amounts of oxalic acid that is contained in them.

Engelmann's Prickly Pear flowers bloom in May and last only 24 hours.

People have eaten the fruits (called tunas) of prickly pear for centuries (which tastes like a combination between a plum and a watermelon to me). The fruit ripens in large numbers in July or August and is also eaten by a wide variety of birds, insects and mammals. You will often piles of the seeds in coyote or bear poop in the desert. Prickly pears are pollinated by a few species of bees that collect the pollen to feed developing larvae.

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