The green stems of this low-growing perennial cactus are flattened and are formed of segments. Barbed bristles are found around the surfaces of the segments and longer spines are sometimes present. The flowers are yellow to gold in color and are found along the margins of mature segments. The flowers are waxy and sometimes have red centers. They measure 4 to 6 cm wide and bloom in the late spring. The juicy and edible red fruits measure from 3 to 5 cm. As the fruit matures, it changes colour from green to red, and often remains on the cactus until the following spring. There are 6 to 33 small, flat, light-colored seeds in each fruit.
This plant is very intolerant of shade. It thrives in full sun and well-drained soil. In Connecticut it is most commonly found in sandy areas near the shoreline.