Opuntia Mill. ()
🌵 Author(s)
🌵 Type Opuntia vulgaris

A pre-Linnaean name, attributed by Linnaeus to Johann Bauhin. Traditionally explained as Latin Opuntia ‘Opuntian [plant]’, i.e. plant from the city of Opus (stem Opunt-) in Opuntian Locris, ancient Greece, a reference to a plant mentioned by Theophrastus and Pliny the Elder.

Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants I 7, 3 (translation by Arthur Hort):

Something similar to this, but even more surprising, occurs in those plants which emit roots from their leaves, as they say does a certain herb which grows about Opus [Opounta], which is also sweet to taste.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History XXI 64 (adapted from the translation by John Bostock and H.T. Riley):

In the vicinity of Opus, the Opuntia is a plant [Opuntia est herba] which is very pleasant eating to man, and the leaf of which, a most singular thing, gives birth to a root by means of which it reproduces itself.

The similarity to the genus Opuntia, with its edible fruits and leaf-like cladodes that are easy to root is obvious. Of course, the plant mentioned by Theophrastus and Pliny can’t have been a cactus since cacti (with the exception of Rhipsalis baccifera) occur naturally only in the Americas, but pre-Linnaean authors had a tendency to apply plant names from classical literature to wholly unrelated species.

Helmut Genaust (Etymologisches Wörterbuch der botanischen Pflanzennamen. 3. Auflage. 1996), who evidently was not aware of the above-cited passages, states that no references to a cactus-like plant growing around Opus exist in classical literature. He connects the name to Greek opos ‘fig juice’ (for the supposedly fig-like fruits) or to a folk-etymological corruption of the Nahuatl vernacular name nopalli ‘prickly pear’ under the influence of Latin pungere ‘to sting’ or uncus ‘hook, barb’.

The algal genera Hydropuntia Montagne (1842) and Opuntiella Kylin (1925) are named for this genus.


A.T. Johnson, H.A. Smith & A.P. Stockdale (2019): Plant Names Simplified, 3rd Edition


Ross Bayton (2019): The Garderner's Botanical


Helmut Genaust (1996): Etymologisches Wörterbuch der botanischen Pflanzennamen, 3. Auflage

“Botanical Latin is essentially a written language, but the scientific names of plants often occur in speech. How they are pronounced really matters little provided they sound pleasant and are understood by all concerned.”

William T. Stearn (1983): Botanical Latin, 3rd Edition: 53

Common name

United States Department of Agriculture (2021)

figues de Barbarie, pricklypear, cholla

Integrated Taxonomic Information System (2021)

How to cite

van der Meer, Maarten H.J. (2022, February 5). Opuntia. Dictionary of Cactus Names. Retrieved from https://www.cactusnames.org/opuntia