Prickly Pear Cactus in Illinois

Prickly Pear Cactus in Illinois

Cacti make us think of southwestern
deserts, certainly not Illinois. But there are three native prickly pear species
that can be found in our state. This is Rhonda Ferree with University of Illinois
Extension. The first two prickly pears are found in isolated areas of Illinois.
Little prickly pear is found mainly in Jo Daviess County and big rooted prickly
pear is found rarely in Illinois. The third type is found in about half of
Illinois counties. It is called Eastern Prickly Pear, Devil's Tongue, or Hardy
Prickly Pear. It is commonly found in sandy or hilly areas along the
Mississippi and Illinois rivers. You see it here in Mason County. It is also found
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 of three feet wide and one foot tall. The clumps are composed of flat
green pads that are covered with clusters of short reddish-brown barbed
bristles. From experience I know that the bristles are small but painful when
embedded in the skin. Occasionally a 1 to 4 inch light gray spine also emerges
from the pad surface. Prickly Pear have especially striking flowers they are 2
to 3 inches wide satiny yellow sometimes with the reddish center. The blooms are
found in early summer for about a month although each flower only lasts a day.
One or more flower buds can form on the top of the pad. Flowers turn into an
edible berry fruit that is full of seeds. Prickly Pears are great pollinator
plants. The elegant flowers are mainly pollinated by bees particularly our
native bees. To ensure pollination the flowers have a special technique that
was first noted by Charles Darwin. These cacti have anthers that curl over and
deposit their pollen when touched. 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 with slimy but pretty good. In addition to food the plant spines are
used as needles for sewing and a red dye can be made from an insect that thrives
on the Prickly Pear. In fact some sources say the bright red insect dye was used
to make the red coats of the British Army. You can find more information at
our University of Illinois Extension website shown here or you can post questions and
see other gardening tips that one of my ILRiverHort social media sites
serving Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell Counties.

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There are three Prickly Pear Cactus that are found in Illinois. Rhonda Ferree educates us on these plants and where they can be found in the state.
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