Opuntia humifusa (2008)

PhotoBy Joe Merkelbach (July 2008)

Opuntia humifusa var. humifusa (Rafinesque), the eastern prickly pear, is the most widely distributed cactus of the eastern United States. It is found from the Atlantic coast to the great plains, and north to southern Ontario, Canada. It inhabits areas with many varieties of soil, as long as there is good sunlight exposure. Its most picturesque common name is devil’s tongue, attributable to both sturdy spines and the wicked glochids that fill its areoles.

The plant is not a true desert species, but does very well in dry to droughty habitats that keep competitors at bay. It can withstand wide extremes in temperatures, from below freezing to triple digits. It forms clumps in nature by readily budding. Some pads are buried or sheltered in this manner, which allows eastern prickly pears to survive fire exposure.

Opuntia humifusa is an understory species in pine forests of the southeast and grasslands and savannahs of the Midwest and Texas – all ecosystems influenced by natural fires. In Missouri and Illinois, eastern prickly pears are native to sand prairies formed by natural river flooding, particularly of big rivers such as the Missouri, Mississippi sand Illinois, and to glades and hill prairies with thin soil cover and high sun exposure.

The flowers, which occur along the top edge of each pad, range from pure yellow to yellow with red-shaded throats. They are large and attractive but only persist for a single day. The fruits that follow flowering turn a red color as they ripen and are attractive to animals as food. This serves the plant as a dispersal method, since some seeds are not digested and can be readily distributed by animal travels.

Opuntia humifusa adapts readily to horticultural use and needs little care beyond the assurance of good drainage and plenty of light. Indeed, it can be an aggressive grower in optimum conditions and require pruning to keep it within bounds.