Cacti in Washington

Image of the plains prickly pear cactus with a blooming pink flower.
Anna50/Shutterstock.com

Written by Larissa Smith

Updated: March 13, 2023

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If you live in Washington, you know the area is associated with mist, many clouds, and several evergreen trees. But, most residents don’t know that the Pacific Northwest has cacti growing in certain regions.

While cacti in Washington aren’t as diverse as in other states, cacti living there have adapted to cold temperatures.

This article will cover the most common cacti native to Washington so avid succulent lovers can start growing their own in their backyard!

1. Prickly Pear

Prickly pear, also known as “nopal” or “tuna,” is a genus belonging to the cactus family. There are over 150 species of prickly pear, several of which are native to Washington. Prickly pear species typically have flat, paddle-shaped leaves, which they use for reproduction. The leaves often detach and take root in surrounding areas. Prickly pear species are typically flowering plants, most often with pink, yellow, red, or other vibrantly colored petals. Most are low growers and spread horizontally. Species belonging to the prickly pear genus are widespread throughout the Americas, with some species extending into Canada and others found near the most southern regions of South America.

The bright and lush flowers of the plains prickly pear (pictured) prickly pear cactus can be yellow, white, or red.

Brittle Prickly Pear (Opuntia fragilis)

Brittle prickly pear is one of the most northern-growing species of cactus in the world. They are native to Washington, many other states across the western and midwestern regions of the United States, and even some areas of Canada.

This uncommonly wide distribution is likely because of its hardiness, ability to thrive in rocky, low-moisture soil, and ease of reproduction. Considered a noxious weed in some areas, brittle prickly pear has a high dispersal rate. In fact, the name fragilis stems from its easily breakable, segmented leaves, which frequently detach from the mother plant and take root in the surrounding areas.

Brittle prickly pear is a low-growing, small, shrub-like cactus with green, barb-studded, paddle-shaped leaves. You will also see cheerful yellow flowers, and small, purple, inedible fruit, which typically appears between July and August.

Plains Prickly Pear (Opuntia polyacantha)

Plains prickly pear is a species of prickly pear native to Washington. Also referred to as “panhandle prickly pear” and “hairspine cactus,” plains prickly pear’s distribution spans much of the western United States, some parts of Canada, and even some regions of northern Mexico. While plains prickly pear thrives in coarse, sandy soil, it is a highly adaptable species, capable of surviving in various habitats and temperatures.

Plains prickly pear reproduces using its breakable segmented leaves. Indeed, they can detach and spread, either taking root in the surrounding earth or carried by animals, water, or air to another location. Plains prickly pear grows in low but wide patches that can span up to 9 feet. The plant’s leaves are flat, elliptical, covered in barbs, and sprout bright yellow or pink flowers. Plains prickly pear also grows brown, spiky, and dry fruit.

2. Simpson’s Hedgehog Cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii)

Commonly referred to as the “mountain cactus,” Simpson’s hedgehog cactus is an altitude-loving, spherical cactus. It is widely distributed across Washington and nearly the entire western region of the United States, except for California. Simpson’s hedgehog cactus is one of 8 species that belong to the Pediocactus genus, but is by far the most commonly encountered species.

Simpson’s hedgehog cactus is a small but compact plant, rarely exceeding 6 inches. It is typically very round and densely covered in spiky barbs, giving it a distinct, easily recognizable appearance. If you encounter Simpson’s hedgehog cactus between late spring and early summer, you’ll likely see one or two brightly colored flowers sprouting from the top. Although the flowers may blossom in various colors, common petal colors include pink, white, and yellow.

Simpson’s hedgehog cactus thrives in high elevations, particularly between 4,600 and 11,500 feet. It thrives on rocky mountaintops. In addition, they are extremely cold-resistant cactus species, allowing them to thrive at high altitudes.

 Simpson's Hedgehog Cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii) flowering in May at Beezley Hills Preserve.

Simpson’s hedgehog cactus (pictured) blooms stunning flowers in the late spring.

3. Grizzly Bear Prickly Pear (Opuntia x Columbiana)

Grizzly bear prickly pear is exclusively found in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and British Columbia, Canada. Little is known about the grizzly bear prickly pear. However, it should be a hybrid between plain prickly pear and brittle prickly pear. Like its relatives, grizzly bear prickly pear is a low-growing cactus that spreads horizontally. Although it doesn’t reproduce as easily as Opuntia fragilis, grizzly bear prickly pear also uses its detachable leaves to disperse and resprout. Grizzly bear prickly pear’s leaves are small, covered in barbs, and pear-shaped. A flowering cactus, grizzly bear prickly pear’s flowers typically bloom in the midsummer months.

Brittle prickly-pear cactus blooming in prairies of Alberta, Canada.

Brittle prickly pear (pictured) is a small cactus with clusters of small, green, elliptical paddles, long spiky barbs, and pale yellow flowers that bloom in the peak of the summer months.

4. Columbia Plateau (Pediocactus nigrispinus)

Columbia plateau is a species of cactus and is known by many names, including snowball cactus and basalt cactus. This small, heavily spiked, spherical plant thrives in low-altitude, dry areas and is native to eastern Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Despite its geographically small distribution, Columbia Plateau grows plentifully in these areas.

Columbia Plateau is a small, compact plant with a shape resembling a snowball. Its size rarely exceeds 11 inches wide and 6 inches tall. Although some plants grow as a single, ball-shaped stem, it’s common to see Columbia plateau form many stems, each ball-shaped and typically clustered tightly together. Columbia plateau is a flowering cactus. The flowers are typically cheerful shades of pink and blossom in the springtime near the top of the cactus’s stems.

Columbia plateau cactus covered in spikes with blooming pink flowers.

The Columbia plateau (pictured) cactus is a rounded plant covered in reddish brown spikes and grows beautiful pink flowers in the spring.


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About the Author

Larissa Smith is a writer for A-Z Animals with years of experience in plant care and wildlife. After years spent in the South African bush while studying Nature Conservation, she found her way to writing about animals and plants in her work. She hopes to inspire others to appreciate and care for the precious world around them. Larissa lives in Florida with her two sons, a miniature golden retriever named Pupples, and a colorful succulent garden. In her spare time, she is tending to her garden, adventuring with her kids, and hosting “Real Housewives” watch parties with her friends.

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