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Opuntia humifusa - Eastern Prickly Pear

Opuntia humifusa - Eastern Prickly Pear

Many of us have seen it– crouching jade green and humble in the undergrowth, often in the last place one would expect to find a member of the cactus family. But the Eastern Prickly pear is hardy and widespread, and boasts myriad practical uses for foragers. It’s also used to make moonshine in the movie Master and Commander, but I can’t really talk about that. 


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.” 

Primary Uses


Edible Parts: After being de-bristled, fruits were dried, eaten raw, or stewed (Dakota and Lakota). Stems were de-spined and roasted as starvation food (Dakota and Pawnee). Fruit interiors eaten for thirst (Lakota). Ripe fruits are edible, but must be removed carefully and peeled thoroughly to avoid the little spines. Tongs, gloves and knives for scraping are recommended. 

Historical Medicinal Uses: Dermatological aid; stem poultice applied to wounds (Pawnee, Dakota), fruit juice applied to warts (Nanticoke). Cut stems applied to rattlesnake bites (Lakota). 

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. 


Designing With This Plant: 


USDA Hardiness Zone: 4b-10b

Forest Garden Layer: Herbaceous (?) 


Sources and More Information 


Dave’s Garden. “Opuntia Species, Eastern Prickly Pear, Low, Smooth Prickly Pear, Devil’s Tongue.” Link:


Hahm et al. “Opuntia humifusa Partitioned Extracts Inhibit the Growth of U87MG Human Glioblastoma Cells.” Plant Foods Hum Nutr. September 2010. February 2018. Link: 


Mother Earth News. “How to Eat Cactus: Opuntia and Prickly Pears.” Link:


Native American Ethnobotany Database. Search: Opuntia humifusa. Link: 


Ozark Edge Wildflowers. “Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa).” Link: 


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. Link: