- San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
Cactus: Prickly Pear, Grizzly Bear, Porcupine, or Pincushion Cactus Opuntia
FAMILY: CACTACEAE (Cactus Family)
Whether you think of the prickly pear cactus, the grizzly bear cactus, the porcupine cactus, or the pincushion cactus, Opuntia is clearly the largest and most widespread genus of all the cacti. Reportedly the first cacti seen in Europe were opuntias, presented to Queen Isabella of Spain by Christopher Columbus.
Many opuntias are grown commercially for their fruit, which is eaten raw and used to make syrup, jam, and wine. The flattened branch shoots or pads, known as nopales, are de-spined and used in salads, soups, tacos, and entrees. Opuntia ficus-indica and Opuntia coccinellifera even play an important role in textiles: they are host plants to Dactylopius cacti, a white, fuzzy scale insect that is the source of the high-quality dye cochineal, which is used to dye cloth and make lipstick.
Some opuntias also have another interesting trick: they have sheathed spines. When touched, the barbed sheath sticks in the skin and slides off, irritating and deterring the intruder but leaving the spine on the plant.