– Opuntieae Tribe (2008)

By Chris Deem (March 2008)

In the hot Arizona desert, three Opuntia bigelovii stand at the crest of a hill. Large and menacing, their bloated green branches are covered in yellow glochids and pale yellow spines.

An unsightly little bush, Maihuenia patagonica grows alone in its windswept Patagonian home. In its bleak isolation, its sharp spines seem on guard against the empty landscape.

In western Argentina and also in Peru, the gray-green tephrocacti grow. Strange and otherworldly, some seem naked, while others have long, papery spines.

Bunny Ears and Teddy Bear chollas are just names to comfort the unwary. Opuntieae can be tiny, flat-padded, low-growing clumps, or shrublike branching masses of sheath-covered spines. Primitive leaves and tiny glochids – the diversity seems endless in this adaptable tribe.

Their natural distribution extends from Canada to the southernmost tip of South America. Some species thrive in cold, mountainous regions. Others are found in the most desolate of deserts. Still others, conversely, live in rich, gentle grasslands. They are also immigrants, welcomed or not, in many other countries of the world.

Though many Opuntia species can reproduce by dropping their joints or pads, their flowers are dramatic. Some are bicolored, all are beautiful and they can be purple, yellow or pinkish-white. Adaptable and dangerous, look but touch with caution, the tribe Opuntieae.