Opuntia Humifusa


Pricklypear, photographed at Jupiter Inlet Outstanding Natural Area, Jupiter, Palm Beach County, in April 2014.

Yep. Pricklypear is a native of subtropical Florida. Take a look at the dunes during your next visit to the beach. You might spot the cactus growing amid the sea of sea oats. And if you're lucky, it will be in bloom.

But it really shouldn't be a surprise to find it here. Pricklypear, Opuntia Humifusa, also called eastern pricklypear, grows throughout the eastern United States and even into Canada. It's a testiment to how extremely adaptable pricklypear can be. (Its secret to surviving northern winters: a kind of antifreeze in its stems.) It is common in Florida, but rare in some states: Connecticut lists it as of special concern; Massachusetts, endangered, and New York, vulnerable.

Some pricklypear species can grow 20 feet tall, but eastern pricklypear, the variety most common to Florida, tends to be less than two feet throughout most of its range. Pricklypears produce strikingly large yellow flowers in the spring and summer, with touches of red to orange to purple. It has jointed stems or pads (also called nopales; nopal is the singular) protected by long, sharp, gray needles that are actually modified leaves. The pads also have bump-like structures called areoles that are covered with tiny, hair-like spines called glochids. They are barbed and detach easily from the plant, so it really doesnt take much of a touch for them to become embedded in the skin. And once embedded, they are difficult to see and even more difficult to remove. Pricklypear bears deep red fruit that is edible once you remove the spines.

Opuntia and related species number about 100 or so in the U.S., about 200 worldwide. Opuntia derives from the name of the Greek city, Opus. In parts of the world, pricklypear species, including our guy, have been important as food.

The Dakota, Lakota, Nanticoke and Pawnee, among others, all ate the fruit, either raw or cooked. The Seminoles and other Florida tribes, not so much. Some ate the stems in times of famine. They also used pricklypear medicinally, to treat wounds and to treat rattle snake bites. Kids used it to play a version of "tag."

Eastern pricklypear was also used to make dye. Which brings us to a cautionary tale. Often on pricklypear, you'll see fuzzy white patches that look like a fungus. That's an insect, actually, cochineal. And if you crush it, it will produces a red fluid, which can be used to make a dye. Some time in the distant past, several pricklypear species, including our guy, were exported to Australia and grown commercially for dye-making (and for use as a natural barbed wire).

The cactus liked Australia a little too much and became a major environmental problem, forming dense patches and taking over the countryside. In 1925, to counter the problem, someone got the bright idea to bring in a moth from South America known as Cactoblastis cactorum, the cactus moth, which eats pricklypear. The bug worked famously. So well, in fact, that grateful Australians actually erected a monument in its honor.

Other places with a pricklypear problem imported the moth, including some islands in the Caribbean. By 1989, the moth had established itself the Florida Keys; by 1992 it was found in Palm Beach County. The moth uses pricklypear as a host for its larvae, which literally eat the pads from the inside out, potentially killing the cactus. It's a threat not only to our guy but to other native pricklypear species, some of which are rare or endangered. It's also a threat to non-natives used as ornamentals.

The Institute for Regional Conservation lists eight members of opuntia as inhabiting South Florida, of which four are native. Two, O. cubensis, commonly called bullsuckers, and O. triacanthos, jumping cactus, are rare and restricted to the Keys. There's our guy, O. Humifusa, eastern prickly pear, and O. stricta, or erect pricklypear, is listed as threatened by Florida officials; the IRC, however, considers the South Florida population secure. Non-natives include cochineal cactus, undulate pricklypear, spineless cactus and elephantear pricklypear.

Another cactus species, the Florida Semaphore cactus, classified by some as a member of opuntia and considered among the rarest plants in the world, is also vulnerable to the moth. As of now, about the only practical means of stopping the moth is to pick them off when spotted or to manually (and carefully) remove infested pads. Use of pesticides to control the cactus moth has been ruled out because it's likely to kill rare butterflies as well;

Pricklypear is also spelled prickly pear and prickly-pear. Other common names for eastern pricklypear include devils tongue and Indian fig. It is a member of Cactaceae, the cactus family.

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.