Environmental Learning Center

Environmental Learning Center

Prickly-Pear – A Case of Mistaken Identity

Prickly Pear

As a typical case of mistaken identity, there are two different species of cacti native to Central Florida that share the same common name, and both are mostly simply referred to as “prickly-pear cactus,” or Opuntia spp., even sometimes by organizations that are specialized in native plants. However, even though they have very similar appearances and serve the same purpose in the home landscape, both cacti occupy different ecological niches and are rarely found together in the same plant community. Thus, it is crucial to use the scientific nomenclature if we want to refer to the right species.

Opuntia humifusa (sometimes also referred to as O. austrina) is a Florida endemic cactus that occurs most commonly in scrub, pine flatwoods, high pine plant communities, and occasionally in dry prairie. Some sources claim that this species occurs rarely inland. However, the author finds this plant most often in scrub several miles from the coast. Opuntia stricta, on the other hand, can almost exclusively be found near the coast on the backside of beach dunes, in elevated areas in mangrove forests and salt marsh (particularly on spoil mounds along mosquito control ditches), coastal strand, maritime hammock, and coastal scrub. The pads (or cladodes) of O. stricta are larger, mostly longer than broad and have a bluish green color. The spines and glochidia are light beige to yellow and usually shorter. Only O. stricta occurs on the ELC campus.

Both species are primarily pollinated by bees. One of the photos above shows the leafcutter bee Megachile medica taking a so called “pollen bath” in which the pollinator remains in the flower for several minutes. Leafcutter bees are especially well adapted to fertilize the stigma (the female organ of the flower) with their scope, or ventral hair, that serve the same purpose as the pollen carrying corbicula in honey bees.

The prickly pear fruit is an approximately two to four inch long berry with a sweet gelatinous pulp that is usually eaten raw or made into jelly. Prickly pear cactus pads are a common and traditional vegetable in Mexican, as well as in Central and South American cuisine, known as nopal or nopalitos. The spines and glochidia can be burned off over open fire or scraped off with a knife. The pads are then usually cooked or fried and can be served in tacos or salads (the author can recommend it on breakfast sandwiches.)