Cactus fragilis Nutt.
Opuntia brachyarthra Engelm. & J.M.Bigelow
Opuntia sabinii Pfeiff.
Opuntia ventanensis M.A.Long
Tunas fragilis (Nutt.) Nieuwl. & Lunell
Common Name: Brittle Prickly Pear
Opuntia fragilis is a spiny, evergreen, succulent, very low-growing shrubby cactus branching to form mats of growth up to 10cm tall and 30cm or more wide[
The plant is harvested from the wild for local use as a food, medicine and source of materials. It is sometimes grown as an ornamental, especially in high elevation areas[
Opuntia fragilis is a very widespread species and although scattered, it is locally common with no significant threats. The plant is classified as 'Least Concern' in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species(2013)[
The plant has numerous minutely barbed glochids - these are barbed spines that are usually small to minute and are very sharp and brittle. The glochids are very easily dislodged when the plant is touched and can penetrate the skin where, because of their barbs, they become stuck and are very difficult to see and remove. They can cause considerable irritation and discomfort[
Opuntia species can contain quite high levels of oxalic acid, especially in older parts of the plant. Perfectly alright in small quantities, foods containing oxalic acid should not be eaten in large amounts since it can lock-up other nutrients in the food, especially calcium, thus causing mineral deficiencies. The oxalic acid content will be reduced if the plant is cooked. People with a tendency to rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones or hyperacidity should take especial caution if including this plant in their diet since it can aggravate their condition[
Western and central N. America - British Columbia to Ontario, south to California and Texas
Dry prairies, sandhills and rocks[
]. Woodlands of ponderosa pine, juniper, and pinyon, temperate grasslands, sage scrub and also growing in barren rocky areas; at elevations from sea level to 2,400metres[
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Opuntia fragilis is natve to continental N. America, where it is found further north than any other cactus species[
]. It is very cold tolerant, and also tolerant of periods of heavy rain, but it needs hot, dry summers and a very free-draining soil[
Requires a sandy or very well-drained soil[
]. Prefers a pH in the range 6 to 7.5[
]. Plants must be kept fairly dry in winter but they like a reasonable supply of water in the growing season[
]. A position at the base of a south-facing wall or somewhere that can be protected from winter rain is best for this plant. Requires warmth and plenty of sun. Plants tolerate considerable neglect.
The plant has stem segments that break off from the plant easily and will then often make roots and form a new plant. It often does not flower, depending on this vegetative method of propagation[
Stem segments - cooked or raw[
]. The outer skin is peeled off before eating the pads[
]. Watery and very mucilaginous[
The tender young stem segments of various species are often cooked as a vegetable[
]. Known as ‘nopals’ in Mexico, where they are a common ingredient in numerous dishes, they can be eaten raw or cooked, used in marmalades, soups, stews and salads. The most commonly used species are Opuntia ficus-indica or Opuntia hyptiacantha (syn Opuntia matudae), although the stems of almost all Opuntia species are edible[
The tan-coloured fruit is 10 - 30mm long and 8 - 15mm wide with a dry flesh[
The flesh of the stem segments is diuretic[
]. The stem joints of a species of Opuntia, probably this species, are mashed then soaked in salt water, the liquid being drunk to facilitate childbirth[
A poultice of the flesh has been used to treat skin sores, sore throats and infections[
We have no further specific information on medicinal uses for this species, but the following notes are likely to apply universally to Opuntia species and other related genera[
The flesh of tender young stem segments can be applied as a poultice to reduce inflammation[
The mucilage and soluble fibre found in the flowers and stem segments have been shown to help control blood-sugar levels associated with adult-onset diabetes[
There is clinical evidence that the soluble fibre in the stem segments helps reduce blood cholesterol levels[
The following notes are for Opuntia ficus indica. They almost certainly also apply to this species[
A gum is obtained from the stem. It is used as a masticatory or mixed with oil to make candles[
]. The juice of the boiled stem segments is very sticky. It is added to plaster, whitewash etc to make it adhere better to walls[
Seed - sow early spring in a very well-drained compost in a greenhouse. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in the greenhouse for at least their first two winters. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. Give the plants some protection from winter wet. Make sure you have some reserve plants in case those outdoors do not overwinter.
Cuttings of leaf pads at any time in the growing season. Remove a pad from the plant and then leave it in a dry sunny place for a couple of days to ensure that the base is thoroughly dry and has begun to callous. Pot up into a sandy compost. Very easy, rooting quickly.