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Prickly Pears July 10 09

My sister and I were driving back home from Texas last week when we came upon the prickly pears. There they were, thousands of the showy, yellow flowers at the peak of their bloom, dotting mile after mile of the median between the north- and southbound lanes of the Interstate. It was exactly the kind of scene I’d have expected to see in Texas—only we weren’t in Texas. We were in Michigan.

If I were to ask a thousand people to each name five Michigan wildflowers, I’d be surprised if a single person mentioned the eastern prickly pear. Cactus just isn’t something folks expect to find growing wild in our state. But it does. Opuntia humifusa—or devil’s tongue, as it is sometimes called—is as much a native of our landscape as the sugar maple and the May apple.

The plants database of the Natural Resources Conservation Service presently indicates that the eastern prickly pear occurs in ten Michigan counties , all of them on the western side of the state. However, that is doubtless a conservative number. In fact, the photos in this article were taken five miles west of Hastings in Barry County, a county not shown in the distribution map for the plant. Conscientious amateur botanist that I am, I submitted a report to NRCS, and I expect that at some point, Barry will be added to the list. But just about anywhere where you find plenty of sand and sunlight, you’re also apt to find the cactus. Sand dunes. Oak barrens. Tallgrass prairies Open Jack pine forests. Railroad rights-of-way. Hillside prairies. Prickly pear may not always be as visible as it is in early July, when its butter-yellow, carnation-like blossoms light the sandy fields and roadsides like miniature suns, but for sheer fascination alone, the plant is a show-stopper any time of year.

The eastern prickly pear likes to form mats, making it probably the most formidable natural ground cover in our state. You can see it at its finest along M-82 heading from US 131 toward Newaygo. Both Newaygo and Allegan Counties are strongholds for what remains of Michigan’s once extensive tallgrass prairies, and the stretch of M-82 west of US 131 harbors a number of typical prairie plants. The prickly pear is one you simply can’t mistake for anything else, and this time of year is when you can easily spot it as you drive down the road in your car.

The striking, flat pads that are the hallmark of Opuntia are actually its stems. The needles—as is true of all cacti—are the plant’s modified leaves. Oh, and about those needles: while the sharp, spiky doohickeys clearly say, “Don’t mess with me,” you also want to avoid the little tufts of orange-brown hairs that surround the bases of the spikes and dot the pads like small eyes. Called glochids, they can cause severe skin irritation upon contact, and the merest touch can cause them to dislodge from their eyelets and find a new, hard-to-eradicate home in your skin. So, a word to the wise: devil’s tongue may look cute, but it’s by no means cuddly.

It is, however, edible. Carefully peeled to remove the glochids, the fruit can be eaten or turned into a jelly, and the pads can be diced and used in salads or even fried. Don’t take the culinary value of prickly pear on my recommendation, though. I haven’t eaten it myself, and I presently consider the best use of the plant to be simply enjoying it for its beauty and interest. The yellow petals have a translucent quality that reminds me of the colored paper one uses for filler in a gift bag. They’re as lovely as any rose you’ll ever find in a garden, and a colorful reminder of the natural diversity that exists in this great, rugged, wonderful state of ours.





Written by Dave.