Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)

There are few flowers that can rival those of Opuntia humifusa. They have a luminous beauty that is made even more spectacular when one considers they emerge from a low-growing, spiny cactus.

Latin Name/Common Name– The term, Opuntia was used by Pliny (AD 23-79). Current thinking is that this referred to the Greek town “Opus” where a cactus-like plant grew. Humifusa is derived from a combination of the Greek words “humus” meaning soil or earth and the word “fusus” meaning spread out or extended. Opuntia humifusa is in the cactus family (Cactaceae).

The common name I am familiar with is Prickly pear cactus. This refers to the prickles that are present on the pads and fruits of the plant.

Bloom Color- The large blooms of Prickly pear cactus  can be up to 4 inches across. They exude an iridescent lemon glow. A trace of lime accompanies each lemon, and is often seen at the flower base. Some Prickly pear blooms have a red-orange center, but I have not seen these on Ozarkedge.

Opuntia humifusa in full bloom

Description- Prickly pear cactus is a low-growing, reclining plant, usually no taller than 2 feet. The fleshy pads are actually the stems of the plant. Each ovoid-shaped pad grows to about 5 inches long and 3 inches wide. Needle-like spines are spaced along the edges of the pad and scattered across its surface. These are actually modified leaves. Small tufts of bristly hairs accompany the spines. These hairs, called glochids, are unique to the Opuntia genus. Each one has a tiny barb that is difficult to remove if lodged in the skin.

Prickly pear cactus with blooms and buds

Young pad with new growth spines

The old dark green pads contrast with the bright new growth

Bloom Time- The beginning of summer heat must signal Opuntia humifusa that it’s time to bloom. Flowering begins in mid to late May and can extend into July. Each plant produces a bounty of  blooms. The resulting show is one of nature’s best.  Red, pear-shaped fruit eventually replace the faded blooms.

New flower bud in early May

Flower buds near bloom in mid May

The newly opened buds

Young flower not fully open

The bloom in full glory

Spent bloom with glochids well-visualized

The red fruit appears after the bloom

Habitat- Opuntia humifusa grows on dry sites of rocky, lime-stone glades, open woods and fields. These plants make a great addition to a xeriscape garden since they are very drought tolerant. In nature they are spread by the small mammals and birds who consume the fruit and excrete the seeds. Gardeners can propagate new plants by cutting off a pad with a sharp knife. The pad should be left for a few days to form a callus across the cut, then planted in well-drained soil. The pad should be watered upon planting, but only sparingly watered thereafter. It’s important to wear thick gloves when handling the pads due to the barbed glochids!

Opuntia humifusa in rocky habitat of Ozark Edge

What’s Growing Nearby? Grasses, Calamintha arkansana (Arkansas calamint), Sedum pulchelum (Widow’s cross), Glandularia canadensis (Rose Verbena) and Manfreda virginica (False aloe) may be found growing near Prickly pear cactus on Ozarkedge.

Glandularia canadensis     Manfreda virginica      Calamintha arkansana

Sedum pulchellum growing in same habitat as Opuntia humifusa

Endangered List- Opuntia humifusa is native to all but 11 of the westernmost United States. It has become rare in Pennsylvania and endangered in Massachusetts. Connecticut lists it as special concern and New York as exploitably vulnerable. Unfortunately, Prickly pear has been purposefully eradicated from many sites because of its sharp spines. It is often listed as a weed, although it is a native plant and is not invasive.

Opuntia humifusa is the only cactus native to Arkansas.

Interesting Tidbits- Raccoon and other small mammals consume the Prickly pear fruit. It is an important food for the prairie pocket mouse. Hummingbirds and bees also visit the flowers for nectar.

Both the pads and fruit are edible by humans as well. In fact there is a long history of Opuntia humifusa being consumed by Native Americans and Mexicans. Today, the plants are farmed and both the pads (known as Nopalito) and the fruits (known as Tuna) are found in groceries across the US and Mexico.  There are many recipes on the internet for using both Tuna and Nopalito.  Here’s one for the Tuna.

And here is one for the Nopalito.

Instead of foraging for the wild plants, I suggest purchasing them through the grocery and letting the wildlife enjoy the rest.

A fascinating bulletin titled “The Tuna as Food for Man” was written by David Griffiths and supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1907. This book has survived long enough to be part of the public domain and can be downloaded as a PDF through Google. You can link to it here-

Opuntia humifusa is also undergoing research in medicine, especially for use in diabetes. In Mexico, it has been used for thousands of years to create an alcoholic drink called Colonche.

An interesting article written by Christopher Nyerges and published in ‘Wildnerness Way” describes many uses of Prickly pear cactus including using it as a sweetener, ice cream flavoring, hair conditioner, flour and as a drought tolerant burglar fence.