Hundreds of minute, barbed bristles poked out of the bottom of my foot as Dad gently plucked each one away from my throbbing flesh. Our family was camping in Spring Lake State Park near Havana, Illinois one summer when I was about 10 years old. I clearly remember trying to avoid the hot pavement on my bare feet by diverting to the leaf-strewn roadside. Unfortunately, like a spider in its web, hidden cacti waited in the leaves to prick its next victim. Each step back to the campground embedded the barbs deeper in my sole.
Certainly, cacti seem out of place in Illinois, but three native prickly pear species can be found sporadically around the state.
Opuntia humifusa, also called eastern prickly pear, devil's tongue, or hardy prickly pear, can be found in about half of Illinois counties. It is commonly found in sandy or hilly areas along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, and occasionally in the hills of southern Illinois and sandy sites of northern Illinois.
The eastern prickly pear is a spreading, sprawling plant that forms clumps to 3 feet wide and 1 foot tall. Clumps are composed of flat green pads covered with clusters of short, reddish brown, barbed bristles. From experience, I know that the bristles are small, but painful when embedded in skin. Occasionally, a 1- to 4-inch, light gray spine (sometimes two) emerges from the pad's surface.
Prickly pear has especially striking flowers. They are 2- to 3-inches wide, satiny yellow, often with reddish centers. Blooms are found in early summer for about a month, though each flower lasts only a single day. One or more flower buds can form on the top of a pad. Flowers turn into an edible berry fruit full of seeds. The fruit of prickly pear is also called cactus figs or tuna.
Prickly pears are great pollinator plants. The elegant flowers are mainly pollinated by bees, particularly native bees. To ensure pollination, the flowers have a special technique that was first noted by Charles Darwin. These cacti have thigmotactic anthers that curl over and deposit their pollen when touched. This movement can be seen by gently poking the anthers of an open Opuntia flower.
Throughout history, prickly pears have been valuable plants in America. The edible pads and fruit are an excellent food source, making tasty jelly, candy, and drinks. I've had pickled cactus and found it slimy, but good. In addition to food, the plant spines were used as needles for sewing and a red dye was made from an insect that thrives on the prickly pears. In fact, some sources say the bright red insect dye was used to make the "red coats" of the British army.
There are two other prickly pears that are found occasionally in Illinois. O. fragilis, commonly known as little prickly pear or brittle cactus, is found mainly in JoDaviess County. O. macrorhiza (big-rooted prickly pear) has a thick tuberous root and is found rarely in Illinois.
As I walk natural areas in Mason County (or even in my backyard). I still marvel at this unique native plant. Yet from time to time, the sneaky plant still injects me with its painful barbs. Somehow, experiencing this wickedly beautiful plant makes the pain seem worth it.
Click HERE to see my YouTube video on Prickly Pears in Illinois.