It may seem surprising, but there are three native cactus species growing in Minnesota.
The purple cactus is found only near the South Dakota border, and the brittle prickly pear is a plant of the southwest part of the state found in rocky places and on dry prairies. The much more common species, the western prickly pear, grows in open rocky spots and on prairies in southern and western Minnesota, and throughout the central United States.
The western prickly pear cactus is close to a foot tall. This plant is composed of fleshy green oblong pads that are broad and flat. They are up to 4 inches wide, a half-inch thick, and armed with spines. From late June into July, the 3-inch diameter yellow flowers appear with their many petals. Several times I have marked individual flowers and found out that each lasts but a day. Flower flies, bees and other insects visit the pollen-rich blossoms. We look for the round edible fruits that start out green and later turn purple after the cactus has bloomed.
A good place to see the prickly pear cactus growing and blooming is in the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, a few hundred feet south of the Snyder Building along the main pathway.
Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. He is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.