Impact of Freeze on Prickly Pear Population

Thousands of burst pipes weren’t the only casualties of a rare, week-long freeze in Arizona earlier this month. Many venerable old prickly pears (genus Opuntia, various species) also didn’t make it.

It’s unknown why some survived and some are muertos, and no one will commit to saying they’ll recover. The last time southern Arizona sustained freezing temperatures this long was in 1880. Some of the plants will surely cling to life through the sheer will of evolution. The pads that have frozen and fallen off will turn brown and curl up, but there still may be life in the trunks. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The insides of the pads that froze turned into a gray jellylike substance instead of the edible, pulpy, fibrous matter that can support javelinas, cattle and jackrabbits. It’s a mystery how their mouths aren’t damaged by the spines, which are there to protect them from being eaten. The fruits are relished by an even larger variety of mammals and birds. These cacti also house nests for birds and rodents, and their showy flowers provide nectar for birds and bees. The prickly pear reproduces by pollination from birds and other insects; and asexually by the pads dropping and rooting, or from glochids carried by animals.

Prickly pears have been a food source for humans since ancient times. Pads are stripped of their spines, abraded, sliced, and used in salads and cooking, while the fruits form the base of candy, jelly, syrup, and alcoholic drinks.

The pads and fruits have two kinds of spines. The smooth, large, sharp but easily seen spikes—and the nearly invisible hairlike shards of misery, the glochids. When I arrived in Arizona, I was told many times not to touch prickly pears without gloves, but one day, in excitement at finding a litter of fruits underneath a large plant, I picked them up—and spent the next couple days in an intimate relationship with a magnifying glass and pair of tweezers. It’s an Arizona initiation rite.

Ancient prickly pears dead and dying after freeze.

Prickly pears after freeze. The chollas that are often intertwined with them fared better.

Not much hope for this old prickly pear.

This one probably won't make it either.

My own formerly lovely patch of prickly pears, after freeze. You can see the various species growing together, compatible in their needs. Some have long spikes, some short, all extremely irritating to skin.

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Here’s what they should look like, young and old, according to the season:

Last year's spring buds from my lovingly-tended prickly pear patch. I started these from pads, and may have to start from scratch again.

In spring they produce brilliant flowers, which then turn into the fruit.

Close up of a prickly pear flower last spring in my yard. What hummingbird wouldn't delight in this ambrosia!

When the flowers die off, the crimson fruits appear. The monsoon rains in late summer turn the high desert into a lush, abundant, personal produce aisle for all desert creatures.

I planted these along a fence. When they get big they make an impenetrable security barrier. Some of the babies made it, some didn't.

How prickly pears sprout new growth. You can lay the pads on the ground (below) or insert the broken tip into the dirt and support it until it takes root. Contrary to popular belief, they do like water, and will grow much faster if watered. The cacti growing wild in the desert depend on the monsoon rains.

Prickly pear growth sprouting from pads that took root.

An old but healthy prickly pear before the freeze. This one didn't make it either.

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15 responses to “Impact of Freeze on Prickly Pear Population

  1. Have you ever eaten one? I’ve always wondered what they tasted like. Somehow I imagined a zucchini-like flavor.

  2. I’ve eaten raw cut-up pieces at the farmers’ market. It’s kind of mild and bland and unidentifiable, but good…crunchy like a fresh vegetable. They have fiber and nutrients. I wouldn’t mind eating them if they sold them cheaply at the grocery store, but I’d never have the motivation to prepare one myself.

  3. Hello D.
    I have heard that the pads when eaten regularly help keep diabetics blood sugar in check. I have eaten them in a salad and they are fairly bland…just taste kinda’ “green” to me.
    They can sometimes be found in ‘Sunflower’ and ‘Sprouts’ type specialty grocery stores, and most often in Mexican grocery stores…where they are fairly cheap.
    We get some pretty interesting foods here in the Southwest–I love it. Fresh green corn Tamales are heavenly if made right.
    Cheers,
    B.

  4. Hi B, Yes I read that too, but I suppose any food low on the glycemic index would help. Yes, green stuff!

    How did the prickly pears fare in Tucson? I know a lot of people there who were affected by the freeze too.

    We have a world of exotic food here, but most of it is too spicy for me!

  5. This is sad, I hope the species will survive and thrive again. They are such beautiful plants.

  6. I hope so too. Sad to see 50-year-old plants lying in a heap. Plenty smaller ones seem OK though. But (sob) I’ve been fussing over my prickly-patch corner of the yard for 6 years now and they sure look dead. Wish I understood this better.

  7. Thank you for educating me more about your part of the world and its goings-on. It is most interesting.

  8. I ate prickly pear as a kid. We, the kids would have to scrape the needles off and our aunts would chop them and fry them in crisco and spice them with salt and mexican chili powder, slimy but delicious.

  9. That sounds really good! So you must know the glochids well…

  10. To begin, I love this post. It is so informative and really displays the importance of the prickly pear. The genus Opuntia, prickly pears of different species, are found in the east along the coast as far north as Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Although this is likely a different genus than the one you have in Arizona it has most of the same qualities, and because it is found so far north it displays that at least part of its genetic code is frost tolerant. Those that survive will help direct the genetic pool of future generations. Something that is important in these time of “climate change”!

  11. Freezing temperatures and forest fires can both occasionally be helpful to strengthen the species of those that do survive, right? Still, death among the flora and fauna is hard to accept.

    This freeze seemed to take many of the old ones—but I’m sure I heard many of them crying that they weren’t ready to go!

  12. I know this is unrelated to the post itself but gosh I’d love to live in Arizona. Years ago I took a trip there, rented a car, and drove the entire state with a list and map of ghost towns. 2000 miles on the rental car in less than a week, and it was the best vacation ever (and I’ve been all over).

  13. Well we do have the best sunsets in the world…and the moon seems bigger…and you can actually see them. But the best part is there’s not a caste system here—you can clean someone’s house and get invited to their party the same week. If you have a job and a car you’re doing good. Lower lifestyle expectations, cheaper housing, friendly people. It works for me.

    • Whenever I travel west, I get culture shock when I return home. It’s shocking to go back to a city where hardened, aggressive, mean people are the norm. And this is the Midwest! It’s supposed to be friendly here. The difference is only noticeable when you’ve been away from it for a week or so. Then I come back and swear I have to move out of this city. Days turn into weeks and I get used to it again. Sad.

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