Opuntia ficus-indica

Opuntia ficus-indica - Body

Let’s explore a plant common to Southern California. This plant’s scientific name is Opuntia ficus-indica. This plant’s common name is Prickly Pear. Look closely at the photos and videos below. What do you notice? How do you think this plant has adapted to survive in its environment?

Scientific Name: Opuntia ficus-indica (oh-POON-tee-uh fih-KUS IN-dih-kuh)

Family: Cactaceae

Common Name: Prickly Pear

Range: Mexico

Opuntia ficus-indica

target icon target icon target icon target icon target icon Plant with green succulent stems branching off one another

Succulence. These stems are thick because they are full of water. Succulent plants often have squishy leaves or stems because the organ is filled with liquid! Succulence is when a plant stores water in its leaves or stems. This Opuntia stores water in its stems. When it is very dry in the plant's environment, this plant can use its stored water to help it stay alive. Succulence is an adaptation to help the plant survive in hot and dry environments.

No Leaves. Leaves need energy to stay alive. Leaves are covered in stomas. Stomas release water into the environment when they open. Plants living in places with very little water need to save as much water as they can, and this adaptation can help with that. Instead of making leaves to photosynthesize, this plant uses its stem for photosynthesis, and the stomas are on the stem surface. No leaves are an adaptation to help the plant survive in hot and dry environments.

Vertical Branches. The vertical branches help the plant stay cool. Overheating is dangerous for people, and it is dangerous for plants too! Vertical branches are an adaptation to minimize the parts of the plant facing the sun during the hottest part of the day. This shade helps the plant keep its water longer. Vertical branches are an adaptation to help the plant survive in hot and dry environments.

Pale Stems. Pale stems reflect more sunlight than dark stems. Pale stems absorb less heat than dark stems. This prevents overheating! Overheating is dangerous for people, and it is dangerous for plants too! Pale stems are an adaptation to help the plant survive in hot and dry environments.

Which color do you think best matches the outside of the stems of this plant? Which color best matches the inside of the stems?

Waxy Surfaces. All leaves have a cuticle that protects the leaf and helps to keep water inside. Some stems also have a waxy covering on the outside. Some plants have adapted an especially thick waxy cuticle. When the cuticle is thick, this helps the plant keep even more water inside. Waxy cuticles are an adaptation to help the plant survive in hot and dry environments.

Large green succulent with multiple branching stems.

Opuntia ficus-indica

Garden with multiple trees, shrubs, and a cactus

Opuntia ficus-indica grows in the Ranch garden

Large succulent with bright green stems.

Opuntia ficus-indica

Black and white microscope photograph. The photograph shows multiple small ovals.

Stomatal peel of an Opuntia ficus-indica stem

Close up of a bright succulent stem with spine-like growths.

Close up of Opuntia ficus-indica

Succulent stem cut in half horizontally. The outside of the stem is pale green. The inside of the stem has a bright green layer on the edge and a white center.

Opuntia ficus-indica stem

Questions & Prompts

  • What do you observe?

  • What do you wonder?

  • Imagine touching this plant. What would it feel like? Do you think different parts of the plant feel different?

  • If you could ask this plant one question, what would you ask?

  • This plant’s common name (or nickname) is Prickly Pear. Why do you think people chose this common name? What common name (or nickname) would you give to this plant? Why?

  • What do you think would happen to this plant if it were transplanted to a rainforest? Why do you think that?

Creative Prompts

  • What colors do you see on this plant? Do you see any of these greens? Can you recreate these colors using art supplies?

  • Be an engineer! Study the adaptations that help this Aloe survive in a low water environment. Create an invention to help people survive low water environments. Your invention should use the same features that the Aloe mitriformis uses. What does your invention do? Is your invention sustainable?

  • Be an artist! Create an abstract artwork based on this plant’s features. When you’re done, write a label for your artwork.

  • Be an artist! Create a pattern artwork based on a plant part pattern you see. When you’re done, write a label for your artwork.

  • Be an artist! Create a work of botanical art for this plant.

  • Write from the perspective of a small desert animal (you choose which animal). This animal encounters this plant for the first time. What do they think? What do they notice? What do they do? 


Resources and References