Plant Identification: Prickly Pear Cactus

prickly pear cactus

The prickly pear cactus is a fun find for midwest and eastern US residents.  It is our only native cactus and a pretty one at that.  After each showy bloom, a single red prickly pear fruit appears (sometimes referred to as a tuna).  The cactus pads and fruits are used in native and mexican recipes and nutrition.  They are surprisingly high in fiber and vitamin C.  The buds and flowers are also edible.  Medicinal uses include a poultice made from the peeled pads, a juice that is consumed to assist in ridding the body of kidney stones, and topical application of the juice to warts.  (Sourced from Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants – a great herbal reference.)  What is your experience with prickly pear?

How To Identify Prickly Pear

  • Low growing cactus
  • Flattened pad shaped leaves (aka nopales or nopalito)
  • Prickly spines cover the pads
  • Yellow, red, or purple blooms on pad edges
  • Multiple stamen
prickly pear cactus

Illinois Prickly Pear Cactus

The pads are evergreen but the main season for prickly pear cactus is spring and summer.  It grows in rocky or sandy soil and prefers full sun.  A native to North America, prickly pear is an important pollen source for native bees, though it is highly invasive in Australia.

Want to know if prickly pear grows in your area?  Check out this distribution map.

Prickly pear cactus

Illinois prickly pear cactus

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