Cacti in Wisconsin

© Krisenko

Written by Larissa Smith

Updated: March 13, 2023

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Did you know cacti can grow in various conditions worldwide, even in climatically-challenged areas such as Wisconsin? In fact, these plants have evolved in habitats that experience high temperatures, high rainfall, nutrient-poor soil, and arid conditions.

In Wisconsin, hardy and non-hardy varieties, including the state’s most well-known, the prickly pear, are growing in the region.

Read further to learn more about the various cacti in Wisconsin. You will discover which regions they thrive in most and how to identify them.

Prickly Pear (Opuntia): Wisconsin’s Dominating Cacti Genus

Opuntia, also known as “prickly pear,” “nopal,” or “tuna,” is one of the largest genera belonging to the cactus family. Over 150 species of flowering cacti are derived from the prickly pear, including those found in Wisconsin. Found as far north as Canada and extending to the most southern regions of Argentina, the prickly pear’s geographical distribution is exceptionally vast. Species of the prickly pear genus typically share many physical characteristics, including flat, paddle-like leaves, long spines, and bright flowers ranging from pink to orange and yellow. Generally, species belonging to the prickly pear genus produce fruit along the tips of their leaves. The fruit is commonly purplish red and protected by spikes.

Prickly pear species vary in size. Although some are short, compact, shrublike, and spread horizontally, others grow to impressive heights of 16 feet or more. Species belonging to the prickly pear genus reproduce asexually. The long, paddle-like leaves typically detach from the mother plant, allowing them to take root in surrounding areas after being carried by animals, wind, or water.

1. Brittle Prickly Pear (Opuntia fragilis)

The Brittle prickly pear is an extremely hardy species of the Opuntia genus. Also known as little prickly pear, brittle prickly pear is native to Wisconsin, other states across the midwest, and some parts of Canada. It is the most northern-growing species of cactus in the world and is found as far north as Alberta, Canada.

Brittle prickly pear is distributed widely across North America, stretching across 22 states and 5 Canadian provinces. A low-growing, horizontally spreading plant, brittle prickly pear 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.

Between July and August, brittle prickly pear bears fruit, ranging in color from light green to deep red. Brittle prickly pear thrives in low moisture, rocky soil and is highly drought resistant, which explains its vast geographical distribution that spans a variety of environments. Brittle prickly pear is also known for its ability to reproduce readily. The species spreads so easily that it is considered a noxious weed in some areas. The term fragilis, ‘fragile,’ from its scientific name, alludes to its easily breakable leaves, which detach from the mother plant and take root in the surrounding areas.

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

A brittle prickly pear (pictured) is a small cactus with pale yellow flowers that bloom in the summer.


2. Devil’s Tongue (Opuntia humifusa)

The Devil’s tongue is another species of prickly pear cactus in Wisconsin. Also referred to as “Indian fig” or “Eastern prickly pear,” the Devil’s tongue is native to the eastern United States, stretching from Massachusetts to southern Florida. Although these areas border the coast, the Devil’s tongue is not a water-loving species. Instead, it prefers warm environments that do not retain water, such as rocky, mountainous soil. Although the Devil’s tongue is native to the east, its reach extends far beyond the coastline. The distribution of Devil’s tongue reaches across 35 states, including Wisconsin, and stretches as far west as New Mexico and Montana. Devil’s tongue is also found in one Canadian province, Ontario.

With flat, green, segmented stems, spiky bristles, and golden flowers, the Devil’s tongue shares many physical characteristics with other species of the prickly pear. Devil’s tongue grows close to the ground, like other species of the opuntia genus, and produces miniature reddish-purple fruit that is typically between 1 and 2 inches wide. Although most species of cacti cannot withstand low temperatures, Devil’s tongue is highly adaptable and can survive low winter temperatures. However, it can succumb to particularly harsh winter storms.

Close-up of green devil's tongue cactus leaves and spikes.

Devil’s tongue cactus (pictured) has big green pads with spiky red-brown glochids.


3. Plains Prickly Pear (Opuntia macrorhiza)

Named the “plains prickly pear” for a good reason, you can find them growing widely across the Great Plains and is native not only to Wisconsin but many states in the Midwest. You may also find it in several areas of northern Mexico. Like many cacti, plains prickly pear prefers low-moisture, coarse, and gravelly soil, which is typical of grassland areas.

Plains prickly pear is another species derived from the prickly pear cactus and, like its relatives, is a low-growing plant. It is one of the shortest species belonging to the Opuntia genus and rarely reaches a height above 1 foot. However, as many other opuntia species do, plains prickly pear compensates for what it lacks in height by growing horizontally, creating a dense mat-like carpet of leaves in the surrounding area.

Plains prickly pear also shares many physical characteristics with other opuntia species. Its leaves are flat, green, rounded, paddle-like, and covered in spines. As a flowering cactus, plains prickly pear sprouts cheerful yellow flowers that commonly grow with red accents near the bottom of their petals. Plains prickly pear also grows fruit, which appears along the outer edges of the paddles. The fruit is reddish purple, long, bulbous, and edible, unlike some other species belonging to the opuntia genus.

TImage of a red flower blooming on a plain's prickly pear.

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


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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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