Prickly pear cactus
Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) is native to the eastern United States in prairies, pine flatwoods, and scrub habitats. Someone examining prickly pear may not recognize any leaves, but the infamous spines are actually modified leaves. The flat pads are modified stems, known as nopales in Latin American cuisine. The nopales may be eaten raw, boiled, or roasted – just watch out for those spines and barbed hairs, called glochids. Prickly pear produces red fruit, also known as tunas, that can be eaten raw or made into jelly.
The prickly pear pads and fruit are also consumed by wildlife, such as coyotes, deer, gopher tortoises, and rabbits. The bright yellow flowers attract bees. The pollen-producing stamens are known to respond to touch by bending inward to help ensure pollen lands on pollinators. Although native butterflies and moths can be beneficial pollinators, the exotic Argentine cactus moth (Cactoblastis cactorum) may lay eggs that hatch red and black caterpillars, which voraciously eat prickly pear pads.
Prickly pear grows best in full sun and dry conditions. This cactus is very easy to propagate because pads simply stuck in the ground are able to take root. Prickly pear can make an interesting addition to a container or arid garden. If you are visiting the Naples Botanical Garden, check out various prickly pears and other succulents in the Kristin Foster Succulent Garden and the Marie and Bill Pastore Fantasy Garden inside the Children’s Garden. Plus, the prickly pear growing naturally in the scrub habitat in the Smith Uplands Preserve started blooming in early March. Someone who has accidentally stumbled across prickly pear cactus may not have the fondest impression of it, but the ecological and ethnobotanical benefits of this cactus likely outweigh its prickly disposition.
Author: Andee Naccarato, Department of Education and Conservation, Naples Botanical Garden
Originally published in the News-Press.