Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ohio's Native Cactus: Eastern Prickly Pear

One of the most frequently asked questions I get from people on the topic of botany is what's my favorite species of plant.  Well, easier asked than answered is the first thought that comes to mind for myself.  Almost like a parent with multiple children, I really don't think I could pick just any one member from the Plantae kingdom.  I don't hide my passion or obsession with our native, wild orchids and they are certainly well-represented among my favorites.  There's just too much beauty and uniqueness to choose from in the end but one plant I can say ranks high on the ladder's rungs is Ohio's very own indigenous species of cactus.

E. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)  Adams county population

Believe it or not Ohio is home to a species of cactus native to select areas of the state where xeric, sandy soil deposits exist.  Each late spring and early summer the plants come alive with gorgeous golden blooms that delicately sit on top of the mature cactus pads.  This makes them a popular ornamental addition to homeowner's rock gardens and sun-drenched flowerbeds.

E. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)  Adams county population

Unfortunately, the reality of being so crowd-pleasing has caused this already uncommon species in Ohio to become even more rare in the wild to the point of being state-listed as potentially-threatened.  The continued digging and collecting of these remarkable plants along with its ever-shrinking habitat puts this species at risk of disappearing across its already small natural range here.  I'd much rather have the chance to see this stunning plant bloom in its natural habitat than in cultivation in someone's yard.

North American distribution of Opuntia humifusa (courtesy BONAP)

Opuntia humifusa is the only wide-ranging species of prickly pear in eastern North America; stretching from southern New England to the eastern fringes of the Great Plains.  Here in Ohio, it's restricted to the sandy dunes and savannas of the Oak Openings region in the northwest as well as scattered counties in the south.  It grows well in areas of full sun on very well-drained sandy soils in dry, rocky fields and barrens.

E. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)  Adams county population

Come June the tightened buds unfurl their inner elegance in the forms of multi-petaled satin yellow flowers choked full of stamens.  Each individual flower only lasts a single day but luckily large colonies of plants have plenty of buds and can bloom more or less continuously for up to a month.  Some exceedingly colorful flowers exhibit an inner ring of burnt orange-red  that takes their already dashing looks to the next level.  It's no surprise then that insects flock to this plant to meet their sustenance needs.  Between the mesmerizing color of the inflorescence and the pollen-covered stamens, this truly is crack cocaine for bees.

E. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)  Adams county population 

I think just about everyone can fall in love with the prickly pears due to their good looks but even more so from the satisfaction that just about anyone can identify them.  Even asking a random person walking down the street would result in the correct answer of a 'cactus'.  The fleshy pads of the prickly pear start a fresh green color but slowly fade to a glaucous blue-green hue as they mature and age under the heat of the harsh sun.  Fortunately, these plants are very easy to propagate from cuttings and can be successfully grown from seed as well.  With a little research and patience people can safely grow these plants at home without harming natural populations.  Although, as always, it's best to just buy them from a nursery.

E. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa).  Oak Openings population

A brightly colored patch of prickly pears in the Oak Openings region is one of my favorite sights each year that I anxiously await to see in the sandy dunes and fields.  Even driving 60 miles an hour down the road with your eyes focused straight ahead isn't enough to miss these out of your peripheral vision with a subsequent slamming of the breaks to get a better look.

E. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa).  Oak Openings population

If you want to catch these prickly wonders in bloom then now's the time to head out and see them for yourselves.  The Oak Openings region in northwest Ohio is your best bet with Kitty Todd nature preserve and the metro park outside Toledo having plenty of chances to see them.  For those in the southern sections of Ohio you can see these in the sandy springs area of Adams county along the Ohio River as well as other rocky, sandy areas in the vicinity.

9 comments:

  1. These are a real treat, aren't they. 'Our' season was about a month ago. They seemed to be everywhere in places with sandy soil.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I hadn't realized they were native to Ohio until this month. Many people have them in their yard but I agree with you I would rather see them in their native habitat. Too bad they and it are disappearing.
    nellie

    ReplyDelete
  3. So lovely! And such a surprise to see cactus out here in the East. Your photos show them off so beautifully.

    ReplyDelete
  4. You caught these cactus at peak bloom time. Very nice. We have them in Indiana too. They are especially numerous in the Indiana Dunes region.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hello, I was given a Prickly Pear as a gift and wanted to learn more about it so I decided to write a blog post. I found your blog in the process, very nice! I hope you don't mind if I linked your information to mine.

    Beth Coyne

    ReplyDelete
  7. We have Opuntia humifusa west-northwest of Houston flourishing on sandier Katy Prairie Conservancy lands. It is amazing that this plant can adapt to so many habitat conditions.

    ReplyDelete
  8. In cultivation I grow them with great success in heavy, alkaline, albeit well drained clay.

    ReplyDelete
  9. your pictures are beautiful! These bring back a special memory for me as my grandparents in Corbin,KY had a huge patch at the base of their driveway. My dad brought a start to Ohio and they flourished until my mom was afraid a neighbor would fall on them and sue them,so they were gotten rid of. I recently purchased four pads from a Texas nursery and am waiting for the callous to form so i can plant. I am keeping them indoors and need to know the best grow light and how long it should be on? i've searched sooooo many sites for this answer-I hope u can help.If possible please e-mail info to owingskimberly@yahoo.com thank u so much kim

    ReplyDelete