Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Carolina Cactus - Eastern Prickly Pear

A Memorial Day get-together at Mom and Jim's gave us an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with a showy but often overlooked native wildflower of our Sandhills youth, the eastern prickly pear, Opuntia humifusa, or Opuntia compressa, according to some references.

Sipping iced tea on the deck, we spotted this glowing golden flare a good fifty meters away, and immediately wandered over for a closer look. Upon recognizing the source of the glare, a wave of childhood memories came flooding back. The prickly pear was a wild card in our side yard football games growing up, perhaps even more of an annoyance than the sand spurs. 

While this Carolina cactus lacks the more impressive spines of its cousins at the coast or its southwestern relatives, the tiny little clusters of glochids, or fuzzy hair-like prickles, sparsely spaced across the surface of the succulent green pads could be incredibly irritating and difficult to remove if one were unlucky enough to be tackled into one of the many prickly pears inhabiting the fringes of the playing field.

This night, however, our impressions of the prickly pear are all positive, particularly in light of her spectacularly beautiful blossoms. A very hardy plant, it thrives in full sunlight and sandy, well-drained soil, and under the right conditions it can form rather large colonies. 

After blooming, juicy pear-shaped fruit will form and ripen to a beautiful purplish-red by fall, when the "prickly pears" or "indian figs" will be ready for harvest, if not by adventurous foodies, then by all manner of wild animals, including the eastern box turtle, for whom it is a favored delicacy.

As the sun settles for the evening behind the pines, the golden glow mellows to a pale lemon yellow, and we head back up to the house for supper, glad for our brief meander down memory lane, and glad to see from the abundant buds that this Sandhills wildflower show will be playing for a few more weeks at least.

Now showing in your neck of the woods, too... Don't miss it!

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