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18 Examples of Thorny Plants (Pictures)

Almost everyone has had the misfortune to walk past a hedge or bushes and get snagged or pricked by thorny plants or sharp leaves. Thorns are adaptations plants have developed to avoid being eaten by herbivores. In the following article, we’re going to look at some examples of these types of plants. 

Thorns are most common in places where vegetation is scarce, so the risk of being eaten is higher. Desert plants are more likely to have thorns than any other type of plant. 

With that said, let’s have a deeper look into the types of plants that grow sharp thorns and rate how sharp their thorns actually are. There are different morphologies of thorns depending on what kind of environment they adapted to grow in, which we’ll talk more about below. 

18 Examples of Thorny Plants 

Some thorns are extensions of stems. Others are parts of leaves that have grown harder and more rigid over time. Here’s a list of plants with thorns, some info about where they grow, and what they look like.

1. Common Gorse 

Common gorse 
Common gorse  | image by Conall via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Ulex europaeus 

If you live in the United States, you’ve probably seen gorse. It was introduced to the western hemisphere in the mid-1800s to be an ornamental bush in gardens. However, it was extremely successful at growing and propagating in temperate climates, and spread outwards into the wild. 

Gorse has sharp thorns and evergreen leaves that last year round. It flowers every year in the cold winter months until midsummer. Its blooms are light yellow.

Gorse makes effective hedges when planted in rows and trimmed regularly. However, it crowds out native species, so be careful when planting it. 

2. Saguaro Cactus 

Saguaro cactus
Saguaro cactus | image by docentjoyce via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Carnegiea gigantea 

Cacti are some of the most infamously thorny plants. They even have a unique name for their thorns – spines.

Saguaro cacti are some of the most long-lived and monumental cacti on the planet. They grow only in the deserts of the American Southwest. 

The thorns on the sides of the saguaro cactus are to prevent predation from hungry herbivores. It’s hard to eat a plant with spines sharp enough to draw blood!

If you can get past the thorns, they’re delicious. People and hardy animals have eaten cactus flesh for thousands of years. 

3. Rose 

rose bush
Rose bush| Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

Scientific Name: Rosa spp. 

The beauty of the classic rose is well-known in literature, poetry, and tradition. The flower itself is a life lesson – with every rose comes its thorns.

The beautiful, sweetly scented flowers of the rosebush are surrounded by prickly thorns. Even though there are hundreds of rose species, almost all have thorns. 

The thorns keep herbivores away and increase the chances that the blooms will survive long enough to be pollinated by nearby insects. If the rose is a climbing variety, they improve the traction the vines have on the structures it is climbing up. 

4. Century Plant

Century plant
Century plant | image by Bennilover via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Scientific Name: Agave americana 

The century plant is a common name for Agave americana, the most well-known species of agave in North America. It is a desert-dwelling succulent that lives mostly in the Southwest, Texas, and Mexico. They’re often used as landscaping plants in this region, and kept elsewhere in pots as decorative plants. 

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Century plants have a flattened, swordlike leaf with scalloped edges. At the peak of each scallop is a thorn.

These are easy for a person to avoid, but harder for a hungry herbivore to eat around. In the wild, the thorns protect the century plant from being consumed. 

5. Umbrella Thorn Acacia 

Umbrella thorn acacia 
Umbrella thorn acacia  | image by Bernard DUPONT via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific Name: Vachellia tortilis 

Umbrella thorn acacias grow in Africa and the Middle East. They are related to many thorny trees in North America since they’re members of the family Fabaceae.

Identify the umbrella thorn acacia by way of its flattened canopy and sharp thorns. This tree’s height relies on how much rainfall it receives – it can be a small bush or reach 70 feet tall.

The umbrella thorn acacia has two varieties of thorns: curved and straight. The thorns can be several inches long and are very sharp.

That doesn’t stop many of the animals that roam the African savannas. They just keep munching. 

6. Firethorn Bushes 

Firethorn bushes
Firethorn bushes | image by Bri Weldon via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Pyracantha coccinea

If you want to add some bright colors into your backyard garden, consider planting a firethorn bush. It’s a medium-sized shrub that will grow very large if you let it – over 15 feet tall by 15 feet wide. It’s not hard to keep them small, so don’t worry. 

Identify a firethorn bush by way of its bright orange and red berries. These are great attractants for birds, especially when other food is scarce. When tending a firethorn bush, do be aware of the thorns. They’re small and located along the stems of the plant. 

7. Texas Prickly Pear Cactus 

Texas prickly pear cactus
Texas prickly pear cactus | image by Katja Schulz via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Opuntia engelmannii 

We’ll take a look at one of the most recognizable species of cactus: the prickly pear. There are many species, but Texas prickly pear is one of the most common.

Look for it in the southwestern United States. It has buttery yellow flowers and large, paddle shaped pads. 

The thorns on the prickly pear cactus are regularly spaced across the whole plant. Each pad has thorns on its flat sides and along the outer edge.

Sometimes, multiple thorns stem from the same place on the edge of the pad. Like most cactuses, the prickly pear evolved thorns to prevent being eaten by hungry herbivores.

8. Honey Locust Tree 

Honey locust tree
Honey locust tree | image by Andreas Rockstein via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific Name: Gleditsia triacanthos 

Honey locust trees get their name from the way their leaves turn bright yellow in the autumn. This medium-sized tree averages about 70 feet tall. It sheds its leaves in the fall as well as large seed pods that look similar to snap peas. 

Their trunks are surrounded by thick, sharp spines. These thorns were an evolutionary development from thousands of years ago, evolved to prevent mastodons from knocking the trees over. While mastodons are no extinct, the honey locust’s adaptation remains. 

9. Pygmy Date Palm

Pygmy date palm
Pygmy date palm | image by Forest and Kim Starr via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Phoenix roebelenii 

You’ll only see pygmy date palms in the coastal and southern areas of the United States. This is because they are warm-weather plants that originate from southeast Asia.

While they may be common in landscaped areas, they’re not good trees to keep in your backyard. Why? Thorns. 

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The pygmy date palm’s thorns can be up to 4 inches long and sharp enough to draw blood by light contact. We recommend wearing gloves when you prune your date palm. It’s also a good idea to have eye protection on if your date palm is large. 

10. Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea | image by mauro halpern via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Bougainvillea spp.

The bougainvillea vine is a popular addition to backyard gardens, porticos, trellises, and pergolas. It climbs beautifully up structures and lends vibrant blooms throughout the spring and summer. The green leaves contrast beautifully with bright pink, yellow, or white flowers and the brown woody stems. 

However, don’t go climbing a bougainvillea vine. Unless it’s very old, it probably won’t support the weight of a person.

It also has sharp thorns that will cut and scratch you. We recommend planting bougainvillea in warm climates, especially coastal areas. They handle salt exposure well. 

11. Himalayan Blackberry

Himalayan blackberry
Himalayan blackberry | image by Sarah Stierch via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Rubus armeniacus

It’s not summer until you’ve spent an afternoon foraging for blackberries in a thorny, berry filled thicket. Blackberries are opportunistic vines that take advantage of almost any kind of soil condition and water abundance level. 

The thorns on a blackberry bush are present for two purposes: first, to prevent herbivores from eating them. Deer don’t like blackberry bushes because the spines poke the inside of their mouths. The second reason is to help the vine gain traction and hold on as it spreads outwards across existing shrubs and trees. 

12. Black Locust Tree 

Black locust tree 
Black locust tree | image by Andreas Rockstein via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific Name: Robinia pseudoacacia 

Most trees with thorns developed them as a way to adapt against being eaten or destroyed by predators. The black locust tree is no exception.

What’s interesting is that the predator it evolved thorns to stop is now extinct. The mastodon, a relative of the elephant and the wooly mammoth, used to bowl over black locust trees on a regular basis. 

The thorns on a black locust tree encircle its trunk for about fifteen feet, the prime attack range for a prehistoric mastodon. Some varieties are thornless and are more appropriate for a backyard. 

13. Hawthorn Trees 

Hawthorn trees 
Hawthorn trees | image by Plant Image Library via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific Name: Crataegus crus-galli 

Plant a hawthorn tree if you want a privacy shield from your neighbors! We recommend these ornamental trees because of their beautiful white flowers, compact size, and the presence of thorns on the branches

Unlike other plants on this list, which only grow in dry or hot climates, the hawthorn tree thrives in temperate climates with regular rainfall. It only requires full sun. Another benefit of this tree is that it will only grow to a maximum of 50 feet and it doesn’t require much pruning. 

14. Christ’s thorn jujube

Christ’s thorn jujube
Christ’s thorn jujube | image by Dr Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Ziziphus spina-christi

The Christ’s Thorn Jujube is a tree famous for its robust thorns. These sharp, long thorns serve as natural protection for the tree, which can reach heights of 15 to 30 feet and has dense foliage with dark green, oval-shaped leaves.

This tree holds cultural significance, as it is believed to be the source of the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus during his crucifixion, hence its name. Besides its historical ties, the Christ’s Thorn Jujube produces small, sweet, and nutritious fruits used in various culinary creations.

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15. The Whitethorn Acacia

Whitethorn acacia
Whitethorn acacia | image by Len Worthington via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific Name: Vachellia constricta

The Whitethorn Acacia is a desert shrub native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It’s known for its sharp thorns that act as natural defense mechanisms. This plant has small pale green leaves that help it conserve water, and in the spring, it produces clusters of fragrant white flowers attracting pollinators like bees and butterflies.

16. Crown of thorns

Crown of thorns
Crown of thorns | image by Carol VanHook via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific Name: Euphorbia milii

The Crown of Thorns, scientifically named Euphorbia milii, is a succulent with sharp thorns that also serves as a defense mechanism. It has fleshy stems, oval leaves, and colorful flowers. This plant is resilient, thriving in dry conditions by storing water. Additionally, it holds cultural significance in various traditions and religions.

17. Japanese quince

Japanese quince
Japanese quince | image by Rhian via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Chaenomeles japonica

Japanese quince, scientifically known as Chaenomeles japonica, is a deciduous shrub notable for its sharp thorns that grow along its branches. These thorns act as a natural protection for the plant. The plant typically features glossy green leaves and produces vibrant red, orange, or pink flowers in early spring. It later bears small, apple-like fruit that can be used for making jams and jellies.

One interesting fact about Japanese quince is its versatility in landscaping. It can be grown as a hedge or trained into an ornamental shape, making it a popular choice for gardens and landscapes.

18. Jerusalem thorn

Jerusalem thorn
Jerusalem thorn | image by Forest and Kim Starr via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Parkinsonia aculeata

The Jerusalem thorn is a shrub or small tree that is native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It is known for its distinctive thorns, which can grow up to 3 inches long and are found along the branches and trunk of the tree. The tree also has feathery, bright green leaves and produces beautiful yellow flowers in the spring and summer.

The Jerusalem thorn is well-adapted to hot, dry climates and is often found in desert regions. Interestingly, the name “Jerusalem thorn” comes from a mistranslation of the Spanish word “girasol,” which means “turning toward the sun,” and refers to the tree’s tendency to turn its leaves toward the sun.