Monday, November 26, 2012

In praise of spines

Opuntia ursina at Timberline
Any fool can love a prickly pear in bloom: they are unspeakably lovely in flower. But the general run of people find the form of the plants strange--even repellent. I maintain they are an acquired taste. I adore the sumptuous flowers in early summer (and applaud Kelly Grummons for beginning to hybridize reblooming prickly pears). But I enjoy the stem shapes and colors almost as much--and for a much longer period of time than their fleeting flowers. Here are a few of my favorite Opuntias (and Cylindropuntias, to be pedantic!)

Cylindropuntia davisiae 'Golden Lion'
Two cane chollas have proved extremely cold hardy as well as spectacular in their spines: This Golden cholla of the Chihuahuan desert is a show stopper summer or winter.
 Opuntia aurea 'Chocolate Princess'
Kelly Grummons crossed two forms of O. aurea to produce this amazingly colored prickly pear that stays quite dark even in summer!
 Cylindropuntia whipplei 'Snow Leopard'

Possibly the most vivid species is this cane cholla from northern Arizona is this white wonder. Also very easily grown.

 Opuntia clavata and Opuntia fragilis (forma)

Almost as glistening a white, this creeping Opuntia (sometimes classed as Grusonia) is found primarily between Santa Fe and Albuquerque in New Mexico. It is painful to manhandle, but vigorous once established. Notice the brilliant contrast with the fragilis behind.

 Opuntia 'Coral Carpet'
This selection is possibly a hybrid at Timberline. It is a wonderful burnished brass in winter--and stunning with summer flowers.

 Opuntia trichophora
Many the name changes for Opuntias in this group-- all have lovely flowers, but the stems are so wonderfully covered with spines that they seem to glow as well...ursina, trichophora and hystricina are often mixed up in horticulture--but any form with one of these names is worth growing nonetheless...

 Opuntia basilaris
This species has an almost Henry Moore sculpturesque form: the lack of spines is typical, but believe me, the glochids are worse than spines--watch out! But with such cool shape and wonderful colors, who can resist?

 Opuntia nichollii
This specacular golden spined selection from near the Grand Canyon also has good flowers. It should be in my garden!

 Opuntia phaeacantha 'Paradox'
Did I mention thus far that the fruit display on many species is even showier than their flowers? This selection from Western Colorado--but almost any form of this species tends to be fruity indeed. Kelly loves to juice these (cheesecloth is the secret strainer)...And tongs are essential.

And finally Opuntia trichophora in its shaggy wonder...Now can you see why opuntia lovers are as fond of the stems and habit as we the magical flowers! You too could get stuck on them!


  1. I've been collecting the opuntias for years & have the spine scars to prove it. It's no surprise ;I also collect species berberis & of late mahonias.Thanks for posting the great pics.

  2. Great pictures and fantastic plants!! :)Even without flowers.I never had any luck with Opuntia when i grow them in pots. They do best when they are free in the ground.


  3. Thank you both: I did not properly credit Kelly Grummons--almost all of these pictures were taken at Timberline Gardens, Denver's premier boutique nursery, in Arvada. Kelly sells cuttings of these at I grow many opuntias in pots, Magnus: they usually do quite well in pots for 3-4 years and then need to be put in the ground. And Paul: you must be a distant cousin: I love all plants spiny and prickly (probably due to a career in public horticulture)...In addition to the plants you mention, I grow many thistles and Acantholimons--andO the worst of all spiny plants: roses! One can never have enough spines!

  4. seems like a very nice nursery!!! :)
    To bad that they dont sell cuttings to Europe.....


  5. Great post and good info. Thanks for sharing.

    The fruit on that O. phaeacantha is wow!


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