Despite the presence of prickles or thorns, a number of native and non-native herbaceous plants and shrubs are suitable landscaping species in North America. While you need to exercise care when around these species to avoid encounters with sharp spines and thorns, the extra diligence is often worth it. Many of these plants have a flowering aspect about them that make them showy highlights to your yard when in bloom.
A type of prickly pear cactus known by the scientific name of Opuntia macrorhiza is native from Wisconsin west to Idaho and southward to the desert regions of states such as Arizona. This prickly pear forms large clumps but usually does not exceed heights of 14 inches. You can use this plant as ground cover or employ it in rock gardens and as cover for sandy hillsides. The major growing condition of this prickly pear is full sunshine. The cactus, considered a herbaceous perennial, features greenish pads that store water, with a covering of needle-sharp spines. While the spines take a downward turn and are not easy to catch upon, each pad has a coating of bristles that will quickly get your attention.
You will have no problem understanding how devil's walking stick (Aralia spinosa) got its odd name if you have the misfortune of grabbing one of the prickly, stout stems. Covered with prickles, this shrub grows to 20 feet, from Pennsylvania south to Florida. Devil's walking stick develops multiple stems, compound leaves and tiny, white July flowers. This is a useful shrub for borders and as a specimen plant. In addition to its appearance, you will have the benefit of its black autumn fruit attracting birds to your yard. While devil's walking stick suffers from very few serious bug pests, it does spread through suckering, which will require you to prune back any unwanted new growth.
The spines on bear's breeches (Acanthus mollis), a native to the Mediterranean area, are on the leaves and the bracts that surround the flowers. Blooming in the late spring, bear's breeches produces a white or pinkish flower that the Missouri Botanical Garden notes resembles a snapdragon. The foliage is an asset to the plant and one of the reasons it can stand alone as a specimen plant or in groups. The leaves are shiny and green, as long as a foot and grow from the base of the plant. The purple-red modified leaves (bracts) around the flowers have attached spines. You can grow bear's breeches from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 7 through 9.
Heavy work gloves are required when pruning a scarlet firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) due to the presence of its thorns. Native to parts of Europe and southwestern sections of Asia, scarlet firethorn turns out abundant white spring flowers and a fruit similar to a berry that ripens to red-orange by September. The fruits that the birds fail to munch on will remain on the bare branches through the winter. Plant scarlet firethorn as a hedge or a barrier. It is an appropriate species for USDA zones 6 through 9. Keep it in full sun and this shrub will provide you with more fruit than if it is in a shady site.