Ohio native plant: The Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus

While traveling in Arizona, one may see prickly pear cactus sometimes displaying yellow blossoms or red fruit. Especially after a spring rainfall a landscape of cacti – saguaroactus, barrel cactus, staghorn cholla cactus and prickly pear cactus – covered in blooms is a magnificent sight. To me, prickly pear cactus seemed to be a unique yet common plant in the deserts of Southwestern states until finding this cactus while hiking at Salt Fork State Park in Ohio. Wait a minute. What is that doing here?

Driven by curiosity, my research revealed that the eastern prickly pear cactus is a native plant only in the Americas that grows in USDA zones 4-9. In the United States, it can be found from New Mexico and Montana east to Massachusetts and Florida. In Ohio it is most commonly found in sandy dunes and savannas of Northwestern Ohio or in rocky fields of some southern counties. This unique cactus was cited as a potentially threatened plant by the state of Ohio.

When a friend offered to give me “ears” or pads from her prickly pear cactus, I planted them as she directed. The cactus thrived and began showing bright yellow blooms within a year. Descriptions of the growth pattern indicate the plant will sprawl along the ground and grow up to 19 inches high. It has fleshy pads (pencas) that grow on top of one another; these pads are covered in defensive (sometimes annoying or painful) spines. In Ohio the beautiful flowers bloom in early summer; each blossom lasts one day and blooms continue during the month of June. The yellow blooms are 2 – 3 inches wide with many petals around the mass of stamens; some blossoms have an inner ring of orange. Eventually red fruits appear. During winter the plant appears to deflate although it perks up as the weather warms. According to the US Forest Service the plant can store water in combination with antifreeze chemicals in the cells so it survives midwestern and northern winters.

During the blooming phase native bees including bumblebees, Carpenter bees and leaf-cutting bees among others are drawn to the pollen covered stamens of the cactus blooms. Other native pollinators for this plant are ants, wasps, beetles, and moths. Because of the spines, this plant is understandably rabbit and deer resistant.

This edible plant also is sometimes used for making dye and medicines. The red fruit may be eaten raw after removing the skin or the fruit may be used for making jellies and candies.

Some folks snack on the fleshy pads of the plant. Medicinal uses range from a remedy for diarrhea to a treatment for diabetes. According to Purdue University, the dye for the redcoats of the British Army and the Canadian Royal Mounted Police was produced from a particular insect that thrives on prickly pear cactus.

If you want to include this native plant in your garden, keep in mind it is a cactus that requires full sun and well-drained soil. Consider growing it in a rock garden or along a stone wall; it can be grown from seeds or cuttings.

Some articles suggest growing the Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus in a container as it may become difficult to control. Wearing long sleeves and gloves when weeding or working around the plants is advised because of the nearly invisible cactus spines that may be § of an inch long.

About the Author:

Mary Marks has been an OSU Extension Master Gardener since 2010 when she moved to Marietta. Her gardening interests include perennial and native plants.


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