Shrubs sprawling or erect, 1-3 m tall. Trunk absent or short. Larger, terminal joints green to gray-green, obovate or elliptic-obovate to suborbicular, 10-35(-40) × 7.5-20(-25) cm. Areoles 2-9 mm in diam. Spines 1-12(-20) per areole on most areoles, spreading, yellow, ± brown banded or mottled, subulate, straight or curved, 1.2-4(-6) cm, basally flattened; glochids yellow. Leaves subulate, 4.5-6 mm, deciduous. Flowers 5-9 cm in diam. Sepaloids greenish with yellow margin, broadly deltoid-obovate to obovate, 10-25 × 6-12 mm, margin entire or slightly crisped, apex mucronate. Petaloids spreading, bright yellow, obovate or cuneate-obovate, 25-30 × 12-20 mm, margin entire or slightly undulate, apex rounded, truncate, or emarginate. Filaments yellow, ca. 12 mm; anthers yellow, ca. 1.5 mm. Style yellow or yellowish, 12-20 mm; stigmas 5, pale green, ca. 4.5 mm. Fruit purple, turbinate to obovoid, 4-6 × 2.5-3(-4) cm, fleshy at maturity, umbilicus deep. Seeds light tan, irregularly orbicular, 4-5 × 4-4.5 mm. Fl. Jun-Oct(-Dec).
Low spreading bushes forming clumps or more upright, up to 2 m tall. Joints flattened, pale green, narrowly elliptic, c. 20 cm long and 10 cm broad; areoles large, 10-12 mm in diam., densely fringed with bristles up to 8 mm long and with white curly wool in the centre; spines up to 20 cm each areole, spreading, varying in length, the longest up to c. 5 cm long, straight or slightly curved, acicular or somewhat flattened, yellow, indistinctly banded when young, becoming brown with age, occasionally absent. Flowers with a slender curved hypanthium, narrowed in lower half; petaloid segments a dirty greenish yellow. Fruit globose, purple, c. 5 cm long, narrowed and curved towards the base, with few areoles; seed c. 5 mm in diam., brownish.
This species from Central America is now widely distributed through cultivation in warmer parts of the Old World. It is recorded as a pest in southern India and Australia. It is fairly common around Pietermaritzburg in Natal.