There are many colorful and interesting wildflowers on the grasslands of North Dakota, but it may surprise many of you that the cactus flowers are among the showiest. From now until about mid-July is the time to be on the lookout for these prairie beauties.
There are four cactus species native to North Dakota: two species of pincushion cactus and two species of prickly pears. The most conspicuous of these is plains prickly pear or Opuntia polycantha. Plains prickly pear is the plant we readily identify as a prickly pear cactus. Although the 2-4 inch wide showy flowers are typically yellow, they may also take on a red or pinkish hue. Plains prickly pear is found largely in the western half of the state on a wide variety of soils.
A less familiar prickly pear is brittle prickly pear or Opuntia fragilis. It is much smaller and inconspicuous, growing to perhaps four inches in height, and consisting of small, rounded, finger-sized segments. Although brittle prickly pear does not regularly flower, the greenish to yellow flowers can be quite interesting. Brittle prickly pear ranges further eastward than the plains prickly pear and is often found on clay pans on the Missouri Coteau. Brittle prickly is also called “jumping cactus,” because the pads easily break apart when brushed by a pant leg or perhaps the coat of a hunting dog. As you might expect, they can be quite problematic for a hunting dog that steps into a patch of brittle prickly pear.
Purple pincushion cactus or Coryphantha vivipara is the most common pincushion cactus in the state. Its range is similar to brittle prickly pear, and can be found on dry, sandy, rocky, and otherwise droughty soil conditions. The reddish-purple to pink flowers are real attention getters. We do have a yellow flowering pincushion cactus (Coryphantha missouriensis), but this is a rare plant in the state, and has been documented in only four or so counties. Its habitat is generally on dry rocky soils with an abundance of calcium carbonates.
Be on the lookout for these prickly beauties this summer. They will brighten your day. But don’t let you interest fade with the flowers, the fruits of all our cactus are edible. Picking the bronze tinged fruits of pincushion cactus is a sweet treat many hunters cannot pass up in the fall.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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