Idaho Wildflowers: Plains Prickly Pear

The long spines and flattened, blue-green pads of the plains prickly pear are familiar to anyone who has had the misfortune to step on one. As if the sharp, long spines are not trouble enough, the plants are also armed with a ring of tiny, hairlike barbs (glochids) at the base of the larger spines. These tiny barbs look harmless, but once touched they penetrate the skin and refuse to let go. However, the beautiful flowers of prickly pear more than compensate for the dreaded spines. The flowers are large, up to 3″ or more, with numerous red to yellow petals. The fruit is a pear-shaped berry, dry and very spiny, unlike the juicy “tunas” of some southwestern species of prickly pear.

Habitat/Range: Dry grasslands from the valleys and plains into the foothills, canyons, and montane forests.

Comments: This was the most dreaded plant encountered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804 – 6), because the spines would penetrate the explorers’ moccasins, causing great discomfort. On July 15, 1805, while ascending the Missouri River near the mouth of the Smith River, Lewis noted in his journal: “[T]he prickly pear is now in full blume and forms one of the beauties as well as the greatest pest of the plains.”

Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, by H. Wayne Phillips, p. 125

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