Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography


with 23 comments

Prickly Pear Pad Internal Structure 3923

The most common cactus in Austin is the prickly pear, Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri, which has appeared here a bunch of times. When one of these cacti dies and dries out, the “skin” of each pad disintegrates and reveals the intricate structure inside.

This photograph comes from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on March 19th.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

April 29, 2014 at 5:57 AM

23 Responses

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  1. This afterlife belongs to life.

    Andrzej Dąbrówka

    April 29, 2014 at 6:39 AM

  2. Amazing. It must take a while for the cactus to get that desiccated.


    April 29, 2014 at 6:44 AM

    • I’ve never kept revisiting a dying prickly pear to see how long the process takes. I’m afraid I don’t even have an estimate, but my guess is that it must be a good while because a cactus can cling to life for a long time. All I know is that once in a while I come across a specimen in an advanced stage that looks as good as this one, and then I feel compelled to photograph it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 29, 2014 at 6:57 AM

  3. I’ve never seen this, and I’ve seen plenty of displaced and desiccated prickly pear. My guess is that the time frame for reaching this state is roughly comparable to the disintegration of a cedar brush pile.

    It looks amazingly like a pile of fishing net — a world away from that of the cactus.


    April 29, 2014 at 9:13 AM

    • Your associations are so often maritime, understandably. I’ll confess that when I saw this picture I thought of a snowshoe.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 29, 2014 at 9:34 AM

  4. I’m going with the fishing net. We saw our first cactus corpse this past March and were very surprised at how dense and woven its guts were.

    Mad Queen Linda

    April 29, 2014 at 4:55 PM

    • Duly noted for the fishing net. You’re the first person who’s commented about having seen this phenomenon, so now we’re a club of two.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 29, 2014 at 5:03 PM

  5. I’ve always enjoyed skeletonized leaves. None of my cacti have ever dried up like this so it is cool to see.

    Steve Gingold

    April 29, 2014 at 6:37 PM

    • It’s not that rare a sight in this land of prickly pear cacti, but I can understand that it would be in your northern latitude. I’m glad to have offered you something new.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 29, 2014 at 8:43 PM

  6. Lovely photo. A much different take on a very prickly, tough-to-handle plant 🙂

    The Camera's Eye

    April 30, 2014 at 9:52 AM

    • And it’s a tough plant not just to hand-le but more generally to skin-dle in any part of the body. I speak from experience. At the stage shown here the chances of getting pricked are reduced but by no means eliminated, because glochids and spines often survive on the ground.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 30, 2014 at 12:38 PM

      • I know that from experience as well! Of course the glochids survive even when the plant is shriveled – those things are relentless!

        The Camera's Eye

        April 30, 2014 at 1:27 PM

  7. Wow! That’s fascinating. Nature does some incredible things.


    April 30, 2014 at 4:26 PM

  8. Not the usual look at prickly pear, is it? And also probably not the typical photograph folks take at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center!

    Susan Scheid

    May 1, 2014 at 6:59 AM

  9. Stupendous structures! Love this. An intriguingly lacy fretwork that I think few of us would expect inside something so bluntly fleshy looking when fully loaded with eau-de-vie of the necessary sort.


    May 5, 2014 at 3:21 PM

    • I just reread this and realized it’s unclear whether I’m referring to our expectations on seeing a living cactus leaf, or just our expectations of what the inner structure of cacti might be when we are in a state induced by drinking said liquor ourselves. So you can just decide how you want to take the remark, I guess! 😉


      May 5, 2014 at 3:23 PM

      • We can let our minds take your comment in both senses, and that way we get two for the price of one.

        Yes, it is a stupendous structure. I probably photograph at least one of these decomposed prickly pear cacti each year. I’ve done it before but I enjoy doing it again.

        Steve Schwartzman

        May 5, 2014 at 4:04 PM

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