Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus

Opuntia humifusa[i]

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Cacti living in New England? Yup? Outside? Yup. And can even survive the winter? Yup, but only in a few parts of the region. Very few. The information I have about exactly where they grow wild is conflicting, though I can say for certain that I have seen it grow in the Outer Cape. (Wellfleet, to be exact) Now, I know what you are thinking. This is a plant that grows in hot deserts. And most cacti do live in those hot deserts.[ii] But not this one. The fact that you can find this growing wild in New England pretty much debunks that fallacy, albeit southernmost New England happens to be the northernmost limit of their range.[iii] And unlike those warm desert loving cacti, this species prefers more the humid climates of the eastern half of the USA.[iv]

In the wild, this plant can often be found in areas that are both sandy and sunny.[v] They also tend to prefer places that are close to the seashore.[vi] In fact, the only place I have seen this plant grown in the wild is on the beach. Though I have also seen it in a botanic garden in Framingham MA. Not sure how much special care it gets there, though.

And in the few places it is found, it is extremely rare. In fact, it was never really all that common in New England.[vii] And within their small New England range, they have suffered greatly from habitat loss, because apparently people like to build homes right on the ocean and these cacti don’t seem to like well-manicured lawns all that much.[viii] Not only is it quite rare, but even where they do live they are easily overlooked,[ix] despite their beautiful flowers.

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surprisingly hard to find despite it’s distinctive apparearance

Like other cacti, they have spines which are modified leaves.[x] They have flattened pads[xi], which are modified stems where they perform photosynthesis instead of leaves like other plants.[xii] They have brilliant yellow flowers which bloom throughout most of the summer months.[xiii] It also has a special adaptation in which the plant dehydrates and shrivels up in the fall to prevent it from freezing in the winter.[xiv]

Also, this plant is edible![xv] And three parts of the plant are edible: The pad, the fruit and the flower petals.[xvi] I do not recommend eating the plant if you see it growing in the wild as it is protected by law, (At least in Massachusetts[xvii] and Connecticut[xviii]) unless of course it is a life or death situation or you wish to run the risk of running afoul the local authorities. I have had prickly pear fruit before (likely grown in a farm much further to the south where they are not protected by law), which I purchased in the supermarket, it was quite sweet. A quick Google search will find all sorts of recipes for this plant.

And of course, the flowers are just plain beautiful. They are one of the most attractive found in the region. In fact I wanted to see these growing in the wild quite badly, and it took me a bit of research to actually pinpoint a place to find them. And if you do want to find them growing wild in their native habitat, I will spare you the trouble of the research: Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary has them. Just ask one of the staff exactly where to find them and they will tell you.  But again, they are quite rare, but they are really worth the effort if you want to find them. Just watch out for the greenhead flies.

[i] Author Unknown “Opuntia humifusa” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opuntia_humifusa 13DEC2016

[ii] Theriet, John W. (revising author) Neiring, William, A. and Olmstead, Nancy C. “National Audubon Society Field Guild to Wildflowers” 2003. Chanticleer Press New York, pg. 446

[iii] Taylor, David “Eastern Prickly Pear (Opunitia Humifusa Raf).Raf.) USDA Forest Service  13 DEC2016

[iv] Theriet, John W. (revising author) Neiring, William, A. and Olmstead, Nancy C. “National Audubon Society Field Guild to Wildflowers” 2003. Chanticleer Press New York, pg. 446-7

[v] Author Unknown “Natural Heritage Species Program” Massachusetts Division of Wildlife & Fisheries http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dfg/nhesp/species-and-conservation/nhfacts/opuhum.pdf Updated 2012

[vi] Author Unknown “A Desert Exile in Connecticut” Trails of Freedom  http://www.trailsoffreedom.com/a-desert-exile-in-connecticut 6JUL2012

[vii] Author Unknown “A Desert Exile in Connecticut” Trails of Freedom  http://www.trailsoffreedom.com/a-desert-exile-in-connecticut 6JUL2012

[viii] Author Unknown “A Desert Exile in Connecticut” Trails of Freedom  http://www.trailsoffreedom.com/a-desert-exile-in-connecticut 6JUL2012

[ix] Author Unknown “A Desert Exile in Connecticut” Trails of Freedom  http://www.trailsoffreedom.com/a-desert-exile-in-connecticut 6JUL2012

[x] Author Unknown “Cactus” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cactus 12DEC2016

[xi] Author Unknown “Natural Heritage Species Program” Massachusetts Division of Wildlife & Fisheries http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dfg/nhesp/species-and-conservation/nhfacts/opuhum.pdf Updated 2012

[xii] Author Unknown “Cactus” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cactus 12DEC2016

[xiii] Author Unknown “Natural Heritage Species Program” Massachusetts Division of Wildlife & Fisheries http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dfg/nhesp/species-and-conservation/nhfacts/opuhum.pdf Updated 2012

[xiv] Author Unknown “A Desert Exile in Connecticut” Trails of Freedom  http://www.trailsoffreedom.com/a-desert-exile-in-connecticut 6JUL2012

[xv] Author Unknown “How to Eat Prickly Pear Cactus” WikiHow http://www.wikihow.com/Eat-Prickly-Pear-Cactus 12DEC2016

[xvi] Author Unknown “How to Eat Prickly Pear Cactus” WikiHow http://www.wikihow.com/Eat-Prickly-Pear-Cactus 12DEC2016

[xvii] Author Unknown “Natural Heritage Species Program” Massachusetts Division of Wildlife & Fisheries http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dfg/nhesp/species-and-conservation/nhfacts/opuhum.pdf Updated 2012

[xviii] Author Unknown “A Desert Exile in Connecticut” Trails of Freedom  http://www.trailsoffreedom.com/a-desert-exile-in-connecticut 6JUL2012

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One thought on “Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus”

  1. They grow wild in Largent, WV which is in Morgan County. Some locals, who enjoy them (not me) go up the mountain to see them in spring and early summer.

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