I was surprised when I first saw this cactus growing in the forest of Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in Bucks County, PA. But since then I have learned there is prickly pear cactus species native to every state in the United States. Imagine creating a “dry garden” with the native Yucca (Yucca filamentosa). It would be a very striking garden using native plants.
Prickly Pear Facts
Common name: Eastern Prickly Pear, Devil’s Tongue
Scientific name: Opuntia humifosa
Family name: Cactus (Cactaceae)
Native range: all over North America (in 33 US states), occurs from Ontario south to Florida; west to Montana and New Mexico; and east to Massachusetts and South Carolina. Eastern prickly-pear is rare in Ontario, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Habitat: Sunny areas with dry soil, sandy or gravelly soils but can also flourish on silty or loamy soils; tolerant of low-nutrient, acid, and alkaline soils. Lives in desert, grassland, prairie, rocky places, dunes, and woodland communities.
Height: rarely more than a 18″ tall
Light needed: full sun and shade tolerant
Hardiness zones: winter hardy
Bloom period: May to July
Bloom color: yellow
Many insects, ants, and flies visit the plant. I’ve noticed tiny flies, spiders, and bees on the pads and in the flowers. Bees are the principal pollinators. Apparently it is very popular with the larger bees such as bumble and carpenter bees. The larger bees visit the flowers for the netar and the smaller insects for the pollen.
Uses and Ecosystem Roles
Roots, stems, fruits, and seeds of eastern prickly pear may be eaten by a variety of birds and animals.
It is pollinated by insects.
Humans eat the stems, fruits, and seeds of Eastern Prickly Pear. The stems are usually singed to remove the spines and are then roasted and peeled or deep-fried. Pads can be dried for later use.
Fruits are eaten fresh or dried and can be used for jelly or syrup. The taste of the ripe, depending on the variety, has been described as tasting of strawberries, watermelons, honeydew melons, figs, bananas or citrus.
Seeds can be roasted and ground into flour. Native Americans have used the mucilaginous stem sap as a wound dressing . Before eating these plants check out Thayer’s description of harvest and preparation, book info below.
Seeds of eastern prickly-pear are primarily spread when the fruits are eaten by birds and a variety of rodents including rabbits, woodrats, prairie-dogs, mice, and ground squirrels. Ground squirrels may cache the seeds, some of which are later eaten. Eastern prickly pear is one of the most important foods of the prairie pocket mouse. White-tailed deer may feed on eastern prickly-pear fruits in the fall and winter.
Snakes and lizards hide under the pads to avoid the sun. Birds, including northern bobwhites, nest in prickly-pear cacti, using the protection offered by the spines.
I grow my prickly pear in a pot. I don’t water it too much. The plant naturally grows in sandy or rocky habitat with rapidly draining soils. My plant is in a pot of compost what drains rapidly.
New flowers buds and pads grow along the edges of the old pads.
The plant drains water from its’ leaves (pads) to survive the cold. It perks up in the spring and fills the pads with moisture. In the winter the plant can look old and near death, but it’s probably just fine.
Description: Rare in PA. A mat-forming perennial, clumping growth habitat. Highly drought tolerant; fresh seeds germinate easily, moderately difficult from older seed, easy form cuttings.
My plant was divided from a neighbor’s specimen. It thrives in a pot.
The blossoms on this plant delight me each June as it blooms in my garden. It is so usual in my MidAtlantic area. People can’t believe it is native. There are many unusual native plants that will stop visitors in their tracks. Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) and Yucca spp., are two more.