Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Purple prickly pear

with 38 comments

Purple Prickly Pear 9924

Most species of prickly pear cactus have green pads, but some in Big Bend are purple. Botanists used to lump various purple prickly pears into Opuntia macrocentra, but now they’ve split some of them off into Opuntia azurea, which comes in four varieties; I’m guessing that the cactus shown here on November 22nd is Opuntia azurea var. diplopurpurea, but don’t hold me to it (get it?).

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 30, 2015 at 6:01 AM

38 Responses

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  1. They are a beautiful hue!


    November 30, 2015 at 6:20 AM

  2. Nature’s tapestry…


    November 30, 2015 at 7:20 AM

  3. It would, actually, make a pretty cool wall hanging, on a wall nobody had to brush past. Those thorns are impressive.


    November 30, 2015 at 9:55 AM

    • Maybe a company could print the photograph onto cloth. The cloth could then be hung on the wall to provide the view while eliminating the danger of real spines.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 30, 2015 at 10:05 AM

      • Well if you are going to be all conservative about it… 🙂


        November 30, 2015 at 10:05 AM

        • I’ve had more than enough contact with prickly pear spines and glochids to last me for the rest of my life, so conserving my (or anyone else’s) skin seems like a worthy cause.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 30, 2015 at 10:08 AM

          • Point taken. It is neat that it is purple. Is it purple all year or just at the end of the season?


            November 30, 2015 at 12:09 PM

            • I’m afraid I don’t have much experience with purple prickly pears. At


              there’s some information about them, beginning on p. 126.

              Steve Schwartzman

              November 30, 2015 at 1:01 PM

              • I forgot to mention that we had purple mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving. I happened to come across purple potatoes this summer at our grocery store and thought it would be fun to mash them, if they were still available. They were a lovely lavender color.


                December 1, 2015 at 9:11 AM

                • Oh, what colorful mashed potatoes you had. In the Philippines, where Eve is from, they eat a purple yam called ube:


                  Filipinos use it to make purple cakes and purple ice cream:


                  Steve Schwartzman

                  December 1, 2015 at 9:38 AM

                • I’ve gotta tell my son about this.


                  December 1, 2015 at 4:31 PM

                • Sure, spread the word to him.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  December 1, 2015 at 4:54 PM

                • Absolutely~we are still hoping we can drive down in February 🙂


                  December 1, 2015 at 10:04 PM

                • By the way, here’s what I turned up for prickly pear ice cream:


                  Steve Schwartzman

                  December 1, 2015 at 9:40 AM

                • Well, that is amazing. purple ice cream!


                  December 1, 2015 at 4:30 PM

                • They also have avocado ice cream in the Philippines. When Eve came to the United States she was surprised to find avocados being eaten here in a non-sweet way, and she initially didn’t like them like that (though now she does).

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  December 1, 2015 at 4:54 PM

                • It is interesting, isn’t it, the way a given culture will be accustomed to doing things that can be so different from a different area. We used to find that moving to different parts of the country. Hostess pies, for instance. You can’t get berry flavored ones here in Chicago-land. Mostly just apple. sigh.


                  December 1, 2015 at 10:07 PM

                • A long time ago I noticed the different treatment of certain plants. In our culture, for example, we always cook whole grains of rice, whereas some Asian cultures also turn rice into flour and make noodles or bake with it. Conversely, in our culture we regularly turn wheat into flour and almost never boil whole grains. Wheat “berries” were a revelation to me in around 1970.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  December 1, 2015 at 10:14 PM

                • Exactly. We have so much to learn from other cultures.


                  December 2, 2015 at 9:41 AM

  4. I have never seen purple prickly pear — it’s beautiful. And this is an expansive one, an overhead shot is very effective.

    Jet Eliot

    November 30, 2015 at 10:17 AM

    • The purple prickly pears are fairly common in the Big Bend region, which is one reason (among many) to visit that area.

      I seldom aim down at plants because usually that provides the worst view of them, but once in a while aiming down seems like the right thing to do. In this case I was able to keep all the pads in focus and provide the expansive view that you mentioned.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 30, 2015 at 12:14 PM

  5. Lovely plant. I think I have told you about the blind individual I met who could pass his hands over Opuntias without getting stuck.

    Steve Gingold

    November 30, 2015 at 3:38 PM

  6. During my trips to the more arid portions of our country I’ve always found them to be so very interesting…Great photo and appreciated the background information.

    Charlie@Seattle Trekker

    November 30, 2015 at 4:00 PM

    • The Chihuahuan Desert of far west Texas is the antithesis of your Pacific Coast rainforest, but despite the low amount of rain there many plants and wildflowers manage to thrive.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 1, 2015 at 3:40 AM

  7. Most exotic and unusual, simply beautiful!


    November 30, 2015 at 5:46 PM

  8. The reddish-purple and greener pads at the top might be the healthiest. The article you linked mentioned that the pads turn purple when under stress, and it does seem as though some of the more lavender pads look shriveled. I certainly never have seen spines that long. They’re as impressive as the color is attractive.

    Some time ago, I asked permission to use a Big Bend area photographer’s image of a century plant. If you don’t know Bob, you might enjoy his site. One of his posts, “The Forty Year Bloom,” has photos of purple prickly pear blooming, although I don’t know which it might be. He seems to know his plants, so he probably could tell you.


    November 30, 2015 at 7:51 PM

    • I’d read that part about the purple increasing with stress, but I’ve had so little experience with this complex of prickly pears that I don’t have a sense for the gradations of purple—especially with all the varieties of Opuntia azurea.

      That’s an excellent post you linked to. I’d heard from several sources that this past spring in the Big Bend was the best for wildflowers in a generation, so I was sorry to have missed it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 30, 2015 at 10:10 PM

  9. At first I thought it the green variety that had a strange disease as I’ve never seen the purple kind. You would probably know they were a huge introduced pest here in Australia, growing so thickly that they covered the landscape and people and stock animals could not move across the land. By the 1920s there were 24,250,000 hectares covered in it. The introduction of the Cactoblastis moth from South America was a major step towards reducing its spread. I’ve seen farmers chop down large prickly pear plants for cattle to eat in drought. Somehow their tongues manage to cope with the spines. Thanks for increasing my knowledge of the colour variation of these plants, Steve. I actually love cacti. Fascinating plants. 🙂


    November 30, 2015 at 10:40 PM

    • I knew about (and have occasionally mentioned) lantana having become a problem in Australia but I didn’t know about prickly pear. More than 20 years ago I looked at some old books from Australia and was surprised by how similar the illustrations of ranching in the outback were to illustrations of ranching in the American west. Stands of prickly pear have taken over some overgrazed properties here (some within an hour’s drive of Austin), but it’s a shame that America exported that problem to you.

      During droughts, ranchers here have also fed prickly pears to their cattle, but not before burning off the spines to make the pads palatable. A nature program about the Galápagos Islands that we watched the other night showed a species of iguana that eats prickly pears with the spines on. Yikes.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 1, 2015 at 3:54 AM

  10. Muy bonito e interesante. Estupenda imagen!

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