Opuntia humifusa - Eastern Prickly Pear
The most widely spread cactus, the Opuntia humifusa is a great addition to any garden. The fruit can be eaten, cooked, or turned into Prickly Pear Lemonade, and the fruit can stay on the cactuses all-year round.
Common Name: Eastern Prickly Pear
Scientific Name: Opuntia humifusa
Plant Family: Cactaceae
Etymology: Uncertain. Opunita: Gr., in reference to the Greek town Opus, where a cactus was said to grow. Humifusa: Gr., Humus, “Earth or ground,” and Fusus, “spread out, expansive, creeping.”
Edible Parts: Edible fruits can be harvested and ingested raw, cooked, or dried for leaner seasons. The pads on the plant can be eaten raw or cooked as well. The seed of the plant can be used in cooking by being roasted then ground into a powder. The insides of the fruit can also be used as a beverage. Tongs, gloves and knives for scraping are recommended. The seed of the plant can be used in cooking by being roasted then ground into a powder.
Historical Medicinal Uses: The stems can be cut and used for rattlesnake bites. It was also used for wounds by making a poultice of the peeled stems and applying to damaged area and can also be applied to warts.
Documented Medicinal Uses: Anti-nociceptive, anti-inflammatory effects observed in extract of the stem; water partitioned parts have been observed inhibiting the cellular spreading of U87MG human glioblastoma, a kind of cancer.
Has the largest range of any cactus in the United States. Ranges from Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and Montana to Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland, including states in between those listed.
How to Identify
Generally, grow up to 19 inches high, and sprawls across the ground. Have tear-drop shaped pads that are fat with thorns across them. Flowers sprout from the ends of the pads in early summer and are usually yellow. The prickly pear fruit soon grows from this location as well.
In some locations such as Florida, the plant can grow much higher, and large colonies of the plant can develop. Any “true” leaves on the plant soon fall off, however the fruit on the plant can stay on all year long.
Designing With This Plant
- USDA Hardiness Zone: 4b-10b
- Native Range: Southwestern to Northeastern United States
- Forest Garden Layer: groundcover, herbaceous
- Permaculture functions: Medicine, food, beverage
- Soil texture: Sandy or loamy but well-drained soil. Can handle acidic, neutral, and basic soil pH.
- Height: 19 inches – 6.5 feet
- Spread: variable, but generally large spread
- Growth rate: 8 in. – 3ft 3 in. generally
- Sun: full sun
- Bloom:yellow flowers
- Attracts: rabbits, deer, turkey, turtles, bees
- Tolerates: drought, dry soil, sandy soil, extreme sun and heat, rocky soil
- Drawbacks: sharp barbs on cactus and fruit
Hahm et al. “Opuntia humifusa Partitioned Extracts Inhibit the Growth of U87MG Human Glioblastoma Cells.” Plant Foods Hum Nutr. September 2010. February 2018.
Luttjohann, Bobbi. “Prickly Pear Perfection.” The Permaculture Research Institute, 15 Feb. 2017, permaculturenews.org/2017/02/16/prickly-pear-perfection/.
Mother Earth News. “How to Eat Cactus: Opuntia and Prickly Pears.”
“Opuntia - (Salisb.) J. F. MacBr.” Opuntia Eastern Prickly Pear, Prickly Pear Cactus PFAF Plant Database.
Native American Ethnobotany Database. Search: Opuntia humifusa.
Ozark Edge Wildflowers. “Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa).”
Sharma et al. “Anti-nociceptive and anti-inflammatory effects of the methanolic extract of Opuntia humifusa stem.” Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine. Jul-August 2016. February 2018.