Opuntia fragilis occurs from the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Ontario southward to the southwestern USA states. This species is the taxon of the farthest north occurrence of any member of the cactaceae family, having observations recorded as far north as 58 degrees northern latitude. Northern occurrences include the Peace River area of British Columbia eastward to western Manitoba and Ontario. USA occurrences include the state of Washington eastward to Minnesota and Wisconsin, and south to New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Range and Habitat in Illinois
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Global Range: British Columbia, to W. Manitoba; near Kaladar, Ontario; Washington, Michigan, Illinois, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Oregon, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Dakotas.
Brittle pricklypear is widely distributed across North America. It occurs from
Ontario south to Texas and west to British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and
California. Brittle pricklypear is rare in Ontario, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan,
Washington, and Wisconsin [39,77], and extremely rare
or possibly extirpated in California [17,39].
Brittle pricklypear is found further north than any other cactus species in the
world, growing in northern Alberta only 4o south of the Arctic Circle . The Flora of North America provides a distribution map of brittle pricklypear. Plants database
provides state distributional maps of its varieties.
Varieties: Pygmy pricklypear occurs throughout the general range of brittle
pricklypear. Little pricklypear occurs in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona,
and Utah .
States or Provinces
Regional Distribution in the Western United States
This species can be found in the following regions of the western United States (according to the Bureau of Land Management classification of Physiographic Regions of the western United States):
BLM PHYSIOGRAPHIC REGIONS :
6 Upper Basin and Range
7 Lower Basin and Range
8 Northern Rocky Mountains
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin
11 Southern Rocky Mountains
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont
14 Great Plains
15 Black Hills Uplift
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands
This description provides characteristics that may be relevant to fire ecology,
and is not meant for identification. Several florae provide keys for identifying
brittle pricklypear [9,32,45,50,80].
Brittle pricklypear is a perennial
native mat- or clump-forming cactus, usually 2 to 4 inches (5-10 cm) tall. The
clumps or mats often exceed 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter. The succulent stem
segments, or pads, are 0.5 to 5 inches (1.2-2.5 cm) wide and range in length
from 0.8 to 2 inches (2-5 cm) for pygmy pricklypear and 2
to 2.8 inches (5-7cm) for little pricklypear. Aereoles
on the pads give rise to 2 to 7 barbed spines that are 0.5 to 0.8 inch (1.2-2
cm) long for pygmy pricklypear and 0.8 to 1.2 inches (2-3) cm long for little
pricklypear. Flowers are solitary, 1.2 to 2 inches (3-5 cm) long and broad.
The fruit is a pear-shaped berry, 0.6 to 0.8 inch (1.5-2 cm) long, and is
usually spiny. The seeds are glabrous, flattened, oblong to subcircular,
and 0.2 inch (5 mm) in diameter. The root system is shallow and fibrous
Brittle pricklypear is extremely tolerant of drought. It avoids drought damage
by accumulating water in storage cells that contain mucilaginous materials with
a strong water-retaining capacity .
Habitat and Ecology
Range and Habitat in Illinois
Comments: Sandy, gravelly, or rocky soils of valleys, low hills, or mountainsides mostly in the desert, plains.
Brittle pricklypear can flourish on a great range of sites. It is found at elevations ranging from sea level to
11,089 feet (3,380 m), will grow well on various types of soils under a wide
range of moisture regimes, and can survive extremes of both hot and cold
Brittle pricklypear is perhaps the most cold tolerant of all the cacti
species, being able to survive on sites where the minimum winter temperatures
can drop below -58 oF (-50 oC). The cactus avoids freeze
damage by rapidly reducing the water content in cells during cold acclimation.
The short stature of the plants allows brittle pricklypear to take advantage of
the insulating effects of snow and the thermal environment at the soil surface.
Brittle pricklypear also is able to withstand temperatures in excess of 131 oF
(55 oC) [37,48].
Brittle pricklypear is most commonly found on rocky, sandy or gravely soils,
but can also flourish on silty, loamy, or clayey soils. It is tolerant of
salt-affected, alkaline, and solodized (dealkalized) soils [9,80,81].
The moisture regimes at which brittle pricklypear can be found are quite
varied. For example, in British Columbia, brittle pricklypear occurs on
sites ranging from very xeric to hygric .
The following table lists reported elevational ranges for brittle
|State or province||Elevation|
|AZ||6,500 to 7,500 feet (1,981-2,286 m) |
|CO||4,500 to 7,500 feet (1,372-2,286 m) |
|NM||4,500 to 8,000 feet (1,372-2,438 m) |
|UT||4,495 to 8,415 feet (1,370-2,565 m) |
|WA||14 to 4,500 feet (4-1,372 m) |
|BC||738 to 11,089 feet (225-3,380) |
Key Plant Community Associations
Brittle pricklypear occurs in a variety of desert, grassland, prairie, and
woodland communities. It occurs as a community associate and not a dominant
species . Brief descriptions of the common dominants and associates
are presented below. More detailed descriptions of plant communities where brittle
pricklypear occurs are available in the publications listed at the end of this
Brittle pricklypear is commonly found in upland grasslands dominated
by various bunchgrasses including blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis),
buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides), Sandberg bluegrass (Poa
secunda), bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii),
and green needlegrass (Nassella viridula) [31,46,55,72,81].
In tallgrass prairies dominated by big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), brittle pricklypear
occurs but is an uncommon associate [30,81].
Brittle pricklypear is a common associate in a wide variety of habitat
types dominated by big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) and silver
sagebrush (A. cana). It also occurs as an associate in various
shrub communities including those dominated by greasewood (Sarcobatus
vermiculatus), shadscale saltbush (Atriplex confertifolia), and
blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima) [14,31,49,72].
In the Sandhills region of Colorado and Nebraska, brittle pricklypear is commonly
found in communities dominated by sand sagebrush (Artemisia
filifolia), prairie sandreed (Calamovilfa longifolia), sand
bluestem (Andropogon gerardii var. paucipilus), hairy grama (Bouteloua
hirsuta), and sandhill muhly (Muhlenbergia pungens) [58,62].
Brittle pricklypear occurs in various woodland communities, notably dry ponderosa pine
(Pinus ponderosa) communities,
dry ponderosa pine-Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) habitat types, pinyon-juniper (P.
edulis-Juniperus spp.) woodlands and Gambel oak (Quercus
gambelii) thickets [1,51,77,79,80].
Publications that discuss plant communities in which brittle pricklypear
occurs are listed below. The list is neither restrictive nor all
Habitat: Rangeland Cover Types
This species is known to occur in association with the following Rangeland Cover Types (as classified by the Society for Range Management, SRM):
More info for the terms: cover, shrub
SRM (RANGELAND) COVER TYPES :
101 Bluebunch wheatgrass
102 Idaho fescue
104 Antelope bitterbrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
105 Antelope bitterbrush-Idaho fescue
109 Ponderosa pine shrubland
110 Ponderosa pine-grassland
301 Bluebunch wheatgrass-blue grama
302 Bluebunch wheatgrass-Sandberg bluegrass
303 Bluebunch wheatgrass-western wheatgrass
304 Idaho fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass
309 Idaho fescue-western wheatgrass
310 Needle-and-thread-blue grama
311 Rough fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass
314 Big sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
317 Bitterbrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
320 Black sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
322 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany-bluebunch wheatgrass
401 Basin big sagebrush
402 Mountain big sagebrush
403 Wyoming big sagebrush
404 Threetip sagebrush
405 Black sagebrush
406 Low sagebrush
408 Other sagebrush types
412 Juniper-pinyon woodland
414 Salt desert shrub
415 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany
416 True mountain-mahogany
417 Littleleaf mountain-mahogany
504 Juniper-pinyon pine woodland
505 Grama-tobosa shrub
601 Bluestem prairie
602 Bluestem-prairie sandreed
603 Prairie sandreed-needlegrass
604 Bluestem-grama prairie
605 Sandsage prairie
611 Blue grama-buffalo grass
613 Fescue grassland
614 Crested wheatgrass
701 Alkali sacaton-tobosagrass
702 Black grama-alkali sacaton
703 Black grama-sideoats grama
704 Blue grama-western wheatgrass
705 Blue grama-galleta
706 Blue grama-sideoats grama
707 Blue grama-sideoats grama-black grama
710 Bluestem prairie
711 Bluestem-sacahuista prairie
712 Galleta-alkali sacaton
715 Grama-buffalo grass
717 Little bluestem-Indiangrass-Texas wintergrass
720 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (dunes)
721 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (plains)
722 Sand sagebrush-mixed prairie
724 Sideoats grama-New Mexico feathergrass-winterfat
727 Mesquite-buffalo grass
735 Sideoats grama-sumac-juniper
Habitat: Cover Types
This species is known to occur in association with the following cover types (as classified by the Society of American Foresters):
More info for the term: cover
SAF COVER TYPES :
42 Bur Oak
220 Rocky Mountain juniper
236 Bur oak
237 Interior ponderosa pine
Habitat: Plant Associations
This species is known to occur in association with the following plant community types (as classified by Küchler 1964):
More info for the term: shrub
KUCHLER  PLANT ASSOCIATIONS:
K010 Ponderosa shrub forest
K011 Western ponderosa pine forest
K016 Eastern ponderosa forest
K017 Black Hills pine forest
K018 Pine-Douglas-fir forest
K019 Arizona pine forest
K023 Juniper-pinyon woodland
K024 Juniper steppe woodland
K031 Oak-juniper woodland
K037 Mountain-mahogany-oak scrub
K038 Great Basin sagebrush
K053 Grama-galleta steppe
K055 Sagebrush steppe
K056 Wheatgrass-needlegrass shrubsteppe
K058 Grama-tobosa shrubsteppe
K063 Foothills prairie
K065 Grama-buffalo grass
K068 Wheatgrass-grama-buffalo grass
K069 Bluestem-grama prairie
K070 Sandsage-bluestem prairie
K074 Bluestem prairie
K075 Nebraska Sandhills prairie
K082 Mosaic of K074 and K100
K085 Mesquite-buffalo grass
K086 Juniper-oak savanna
K087 Mesquite-oak savanna
This species is known to occur in the following ecosystem types (as named by the U.S. Forest Service in their Forest and Range Ecosystem [FRES] Type classification):
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES30 Desert shrub
FRES32 Texas savanna
FRES33 Southwestern shrubsteppe
FRES36 Mountain grasslands
FRES38 Plains grasslands
FRES40 Desert grasslands
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 81 to >300
Comments: Over 100 EO's (Benson 1982).
It is extremely cold tolerant, growing in Canada almost to the arctic circle (Weniger 1970). Species is fire adapted sprouting from root crown and layering from pads bureied in substrate protected from fire (Taylor, 2005).
Fire Management Considerations
Repeated fires can greatly reduce populations of Opuntia species. High fire frequency may eliminate
brittle pricklypears from a site for many years until new plants
reestablish from seeds or pads carried onto the site by birds or mammals [9,70].
In Washington, brittle pricklypear habitat has been greatly reduced due to
development and forest expansion resulting from fire exclusion .
Plant Response to Fire
Following mortality of aboveground tissues, brittle pricklypear grows new pads
from buds in the root crown. New plants also develop from surviving pads
that readily grow new roots whether the pads are detached or still attached to
the parent plant .
Immediate Effect of Fire
The aboveground parts of brittle pricklypear are readily killed by even
low-severity fire. Some fleshy pads may survive low- to moderate-severity fire when
they are partially covered by litter or sheltered within a
clump of stems. High-severity fire usually kills the entire plant [10,70].
POSTFIRE REGENERATION STRATEGY :
Surface rhizome/chamaephytic root crown in organic mantle or on soil surface
Ground residual colonizer (on-site, initial community)
Initial off-site colonizer (off-site, initial community)
Secondary colonizer (on-site or off-site seed sources)
Thomas  lists brittle pricklypear as fire tolerant. Brittle pricklypear is adapted to
survive fire by sprouting from the root crown, by layering from old pads that
were buried and protected in the litter layer, and by new seedling
Brittle pricklypear occurs in plant communities with a wide range of fire
frequencies, from less than 10 years for many prairie and grassland communities,
to the 400 years possible for the Colorado pinyon (Pinus edulis)
community. As of this writing (2005), fire ecology studies are lacking for brittle pricklypear.
The following table provides fire return intervals for plant communities
and ecosystems where brittle pricklypear occurs. For further information, see
the FEIS review of the dominant species listed below.
|Community or Ecosystem||Dominant Species||Fire Return Interval Range (years)|
|bluestem prairie||Andropogon gerardii var. gerardii-Schizachyrium scoparium||43,56]|
|Nebraska sandhills prairie||Andropogon gerardii var. paucipilus-Schizachyrium scoparium||<10|
|bluestem-Sacahuista prairie||Andropogon littoralis-Spartina spartinae||<10 |
|silver sagebrush steppe||Artemisia cana||5-45 [29,57,83]|
|sagebrush steppe||Artemisia tridentata/Pseudoroegneria spicata||20-70 |
|basin big sagebrush||Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata||12-43 |
|mountain big sagebrush||Artemisia tridentata var. vaseyana||15-40 [4,16,54]|
|Wyoming big sagebrush||Artemisia tridentata var. wyomingensis||10-70 (40**) [74,84]|
|saltbush-greasewood||Atriplex confertifolia-Sarcobatus vermiculatus||56]|
|desert grasslands||Bouteloua eriopoda and/or Pleuraphis mutica||10 to <100 [52,56]|
|plains grasslands||Bouteloua spp.||<35 [56,83]|
|blue grama-needle-and-thread grass-western wheatgrass||Bouteloua gracilis-Hesperostipa comata-Pascopyrum smithii||<35 [56,60,83]|
|blue grama-buffalo grass||Bouteloua gracilis-Buchloe dactyloides||<35 [56,83]|
|grama-galleta steppe||Bouteloua gracilis-Pleuraphis jamesii||<35 to <100|
|blue grama-tobosa prairie||Bouteloua gracilis-Pleuraphis mutica||56]|
|blackbrush||Coleogyne ramosissima||<35 to <100|
|Rocky Mountain juniper||Juniperus scopulorum||<35 |
|wheatgrass plains grasslands||Pascopyrum smithii||<5-47+ [56,57,83]|
|pinyon-juniper||Pinus-Juniperus spp.||<35 |
|Colorado pinyon||Pinus edulis||10-400+ [22,26,41,56]|
|interior ponderosa pine*||Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum||2-30 [3,6,47]|
|Arizona pine||Pinus ponderosa var. arizonica||2-15 [6,19,64]|
|mesquite||Prosopis glandulosa||<35 to <100 [52,56]|
|mesquite-buffalo grass||Prosopis glandulosa-Buchloe dactyloides||<35|
|Texas savanna||Prosopis glandulosa var. glandulosa||<10 |
|mountain grasslands||Pseudoroegneria spicata||3-40 (Âµ=10) [2,3]|
|oak-juniper woodland (Southwest)||Quercus-Juniperus spp.||<35 to <200 |
|blackland prairie||Schizachyrium scoparium-Nassella leucotricha||<10|
|Fayette prairie||Schizachyrium scoparium-Buchloe dactyloides||<10 |
|little bluestem-grama prairie||Schizachyrium scoparium-Bouteloua spp.||<35 |
*fire return interval varies widely; trends in variation are noted in the species review
More info for the terms: forbs, lichens, shrubs, succession
Brittle pricklypear is often an early seral species and is shade intolerant. It may persist well
on shallow soils of low fertility where other plants are sparse, but may decrease on more fertile sites as
taller vegetation becomes established [48,77]. In a study of rock outcrop
succession in boreal Manitoba, brittle pricklypear was the 1st of the
stress-tolerant perennials to occupy rock outcrops. The successional sequence
was: 1) lichens (Parmelia and Cladonia spp.), 2) moss (Grimmia
and Hedwigia spp.) mats, 3) vascular annuals, 4) short-lived perennial
forbs 5) stress-tolerant, long-lived perennial forbs, 6) deep-rooted perennial grasses, and
7) trees and shrubs. Brittle pricklypear did not persist past stage 4 .
More info for the terms: layering, monoecious
Brittle pricklypear reproduces by seeds, layering, and sprouting from detached stem
Brittle pricklypear is monoecious .
Brittle pricklypear is pollinated by insects .
Brittle pricklypear does not dependably flower every year in its northerly
range, thus limiting seed production in these areas [9,48,79].
Seeds of brittle pricklypear are primarily spread when the fruits are eaten by frugivorous birds
and small mammals. Fruits also readily attach to the fur and feathers of animals
No information is available on this topic.
Germination rate is reportedly low for seeds of Opuntia species .
Although the literature reports that brittle pricklypear regenerates by seeds
, information is lacking on the specifics of seedling establishment and
Asexual reproduction occurs from detached pads which readily root even in the absence of
water. The pads are primarily dispersed by attaching to animals by the
barbed spines. The pads are also dispersed by gravity and by floating in water
during heavy rains or snow melt. In the northerly range of brittle pricklypear, flowering can be
rare and the plant may depend wholly on vegetative reproduction [9,48].
Growth Form (according to Raunkiær Life-form classification)
More info for the terms: hemicryptophyte, stem succulent
RAUNKIAER  LIFE FORM:
Life History and Behavior
Brittle pricklypear flowers from May at low elevations to July at high
elevations. Fruits mature 2 to 3 months after flowering and many persist
until the following spring [9,25,50].
This Opuntia mainly reproduces asexually by detachment of its stems or cladode. In O.fragilis terminal stem segments break off easily from the parent plant and and take-root producing clonal individuals (Rebman and Pinkava 2001). This species is also believed to be dispersed by bison (Valiente-Banuet and Godinez-Alvarez 2002).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Opuntia fragilis
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Opuntia fragilis
Public Records: 4
Specimens with Barcodes: 6
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
Rounded National Status Rank: N4 - Apparently Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G4 - Apparently Secure
Reasons: Widespread throughout the mid-west and western United States.
Iowa and Wisconsin [36,82], and endangered in Illinois and Michigan [35,53].
Little pricklypear is listed as threatened in Iowa, protected in Nevada, and
protected from salvage in Arizona. Pygmy pricklypear is listed as threatened in
Iowa, protected in Nevada, and protected from salvage in Arizona .
Comments: Most cacti subject to horticultural collecting.
Brittle pricklypear may increase in response to heavy grazing. In a Sandberg
bluegrass grassland in southern British Columbia, brittle pricklypear was the
dominant herbaceous cover species in heavily grazed pastures .
However, researchers are not sure if brittle pricklypear populations respond to
a reduction in the preferred forage species or if grazing animals simply aid
brittle pricklypear's spread and establishment by transporting the pads on their bodies
Brittle pricklypear is susceptible to damage by several insects including
the cochineal scale, the cactus bug, and several species of cactus
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Value for rehabilitation of disturbed sites
recovery plantings in shrublands of Nevada .
Importance to Livestock and Wildlife
Stems, fruits, and seeds of brittle pricklypear may comprise an appreciable
portion of the diet of at least 44 species of birds and mammals . For
example, a study near Flagstaff, Arizona, showed that brittle pricklypear and
twist-spine pricklypear (Opuntia macrorhiza) were major food
items for Botta's pocket gophers in winter and spring. Although use was less, the
pocket gophers also consistently grazed pricklypears in summer and fall . The
pads of Opuntia species can be used as emergency forage for livestock
after the spines have been singed off .
Brittle pricklypear provides food
for cactus-feeding insects including moths, bugs, and beetles. For a list of
insect species that graze brittle pricklypear, see [8,15,76].
Brittle pricklypear is low in nutritional value for livestock .
No information is available on this topic.
Other uses and values
usually roasted and peeled before being eaten. Fruits are eaten raw, dried
or cooked and are often used to make jellies. Native Americans used the
mucilaginous juice from the stems as a fixing agent for paints .
Seeds are roasted and ground into flour . Brittle pricklypear has
been used medicinally to sooth sore throats and relieve skin
Opuntia fragilis, known by the common names brittle prickly pear and little prickly pear, is a prickly pear cactus native to much of North America. It occurs in several Canadian provinces. It is known from farther north than any other cactus, occurring at as close as 8°south of the Arctic Circle, (58°N latitude) in Alberta. There is an isolated and possibly genetically unique population in Eastern Ontario known as the "Kaladar Cactus".
Brittle Prickly Pear is a small decumbent cactus that grows to a maximum height of 10 centimeters (4 in). Both the common and scientific names refer to the easily detached stem segments. This is known to be a means of plant dispersal.
Opuntia fragilis is a small, prostrate plant, rarely more than 4 inches high: joints tumid, fragile, easily detached, oval, elliptical, or subglobose, 1-2 in. long and nearly as thick as broad, bright green: areoles ¼-½ in. apart, with whitish wool and a few white to yellow bristles, which are much longer and more abundant on older joints; spines 1-4, occasionally a few small additional ones, weak, dark brown, the upper one usually longer and stronger than the others, rarely an inch in length: flowers greenish yellow, 1-1¼ inches wide: fruit ovate to subglobose. with few spines or bristles, mostly sterile, an inch or less long; seeds few and large. Rocky Mountain region from Canada to New Mexico.
Subspecies and varieties
- Var. brachyarthra, Coult. A plant with more swollen joints, more numerous and stronger spines, smaller flowers and more spiny fruit Colorado, New Mexico.
- Var. caespitosa, Hort. Joints bright green, smaller and more crowded than in the type: flowers bright yellow. Colorado.
- Var. tuberiformis, Hort. Joints olive-green, bulbous-looking. Colorado.
- C.Michael Hogan. 2011. Cactus. Topic ed. Arthur Dawson. Ed.-in-chief Cutler J.Cleveland. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for Science and the Environment. Washington DC
- US Forest Service
- 32. Opuntia fragilis (Nuttall) Haworth, Flora of North America
Names and Taxonomy
(Nutt.) Haw. (Cactaceae) [9,21,38,39,45,80].
Infrataxa: Based upon differences in distribution and plant size, some systematists recognize 2 varieties
of brittle pricklypear [9,38,39,50,78]:
Opuntia fragilis var. brachyarthra (Engelm. & Bigelow) Coult, little pricklypear
Opuntia fragilis var. fragilis, pygmy pricklypear
Hybrids: Brittle pricklypear hybridizes with plains pricklypear (O. polyacantha) and
grizzlybear pricklypear (O. erinacea) .