Cactus opuntia L.
Opuntia compressa J.F.Macbr.
Opuntia vulgaris Mill.
Cactus compressus Salisb.
Cactus humifusus Raf.
Cactus italicus Ten.
Opuntia allairei Griffiths
Opuntia arkansana Engelm. ex Hirscht
Opuntia calcicola Wherry
Opuntia carolina J.Forbes
Opuntia fuscoatra Engelm.
Opuntia intermedia Salm-Dyck
Opuntia intermedia A.Gray
Opuntia italica (Ten.) Pfeiff.
Opuntia opuntia (L.) H.Karst.
Opuntia prostrata Monv. & Lem. ex C.F.Först.
Opuntia rafinesquiana Urlandt
Opuntia turbinata Small
Platyopuntia vulgaris (Mill.) F.Ritter
Common Name: Eastern Prickly Pear
Opuntia humifusa is a spine-free, succulent evergreen shrubby cactus forming low clumps, or often prostrate, up to 0.20 metres tall[
The plant is harvested from the wild for local use as a food, medicine and source of materials. It is grown as an ornamental.
Opuntia humifusa has a wide distribution and a large number of locations. The plant is classified as 'Least Concern' in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species(2017)[
The plant has numerous minutely barbed glochids - these are barbed spines that are usually small to minute and are very sharp and brittle. The glochids are very easily dislodged when the plant is touched and can penetrate the skin where, because of their barbs, they become stuck and are very difficult to see and remove. They can cause considerable irritation and discomfort[
Opuntia species can contain quite high levels of oxalic acid, especially in older parts of the plant. Perfectly alright in small quantities, foods containing oxalic acid should not be eaten in large amounts since it can lock-up other nutrients in the food, especially calcium, thus causing mineral deficiencies. The oxalic acid content will be reduced if the plant is cooked. People with a tendency to rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones or hyperacidity should take especial caution if including this plant in their diet since it can aggravate their condition[
Southern and eastern N. America - South Dakota to New York and Massachusetts south to eastern Texas, Louisiana and Florida,
Sandy soil and rock outcrops (ranging from granitic to sand stone or limestone) of hills, valleys, and shores[
]. Open dry areas[
]. Rocky bluffs, sand dunes, dry rocky or sandy grasslands.
|Conservation Status||Least Concern
|Other Uses Rating||
|Cultivation Status||Ornamental, Wild
Opuntia humifusa is very cold-hardy, tolerating temperatures down to about -30°c[
]. It is tolerant of a variety of conditions, being able to thrive in areas with heavy rainfall for part of the year and then hot and dry for other parts of the year. It can also tolerate considerable cold and winter snow so long as the soil is very free-draining. In times of drought or cold the plant shrivels considerably, sometimes collapsing completely until clement conditions return.
Requires a sandy or very well-drained soil[
]. Prefers a pH in the range 6 to 7.5[
]. Must be kept fairly dry in winter but likes a reasonable supply of water in the growing season[
]. A position at the base of a south-facing wall or somewhere that can be protected from winter rain is best for this plant. Requires warmth and plenty of sun in the growing season. Plants tolerate considerable neglect.
There is considerable confusion over the correct name for this species, several of the synonyms listed above are also applied to other species in this genus.
Fruit - raw, cooked or dried for later use[
]. Sweet and gelatinous[
]. Lean and insipid[
]. The unripe fruits can be added to soups etc, imparting an okra-like mucilaginous quality[
]. The fruit can hang on the plant all year round[
]. The purplish or reddish, fleshy fruit is around 15 - 40mm long and 20 - 30mm in diameter[
]. Be careful of the plants irritant hairs, see the notes above on toxicity.
Stem segments - cooked or raw[
]. Watery and very mucilaginous[
The tender young stem segments of various species are often cooked as a vegetable[
]. Known as ‘nopals’ in Mexico, where they are a common ingredient in numerous dishes, they can be eaten raw or cooked, used in marmalades, soups, stews and salads. The most commonly used species are Opuntia ficus-indica or Opuntia hyptiacantha (syn Opuntia matudae), although the stems of almost all Opuntia species are edible[
Seed - briefly roasted then ground into a powder[
]. It is also used as a thickener[
A poultice of the peeled stem segments is applied to wounds, sores, warts, snakebites etc[
The juice of the fruits is used as a treatment for warts[
A tea made from the pads is used in the treatment of lung ailments[
We have no further specific information on medicinal uses for this species, but the following notes are likely to apply universally to Opuntia species and other related genera[
The flesh of tender young stem segments can be applied as a poultice to reduce inflammation[
The mucilage and soluble fibre found in the flowers and stem segments have been shown to help control blood-sugar levels associated with adult-onset diabetes[
There is clinical evidence that the soluble fibre in the stem segments helps reduce blood cholesterol levels[
Extracts from various parts of the plant are used as ingredients in commercial cosmetic preparations as antimicrobial, antioxidants, astringents, emollients, hair conditioners, humectants, skin, hair and nail conditioners etc[
The plant (part not specified) is used as a mordant to fix dyes[
The following notes are for Opuntia ficus indica. They almost certainly also apply to this species[
A gum is obtained from the stem. It is used as a masticatory or can be mixed with oil to make candles[
]. The juice of the boiled stem segments is very sticky. It is added to plaster, whitewash etc to make it adhere better to walls[
Seed - sow early spring in a very well-drained compost in a greenhouse. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in the greenhouse for at least their first two winters. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. Give the plants some protection from winter wet. Make sure you have some reserve plants in case those outdoors do not overwinter.
Cuttings of leaf pads at any time in the growing season. Remove a pad from the plant and then leave it in a dry sunny place for a couple of days to ensure that the base is thoroughly dry and has begun to callous. Pot up into a sandy compost. Very easy, rooting quickly.