By: Ash Lloyd, EcoHouse Green Gardening Volunteer
The Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa)
When you think of Canadian plants, a cactus is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Many people may be surprised to learn that Canada even has any native cacti given how far north we are, but we do! The species of Prickly Pear, known as the Eastern Prickly Pear (aka Devil’s Tongue or Indian Fig), has a range that extends from down in New Mexico, up to Montana, and over to the southern part of the Great Lakes. It is a low growing cactus that grows flat, teardrop shaped pads and produces a reddish-brown fruit in the right conditions.
The Eastern Prickly Pear likes to grow under full sun, in dry sandy soil that drains well. It can be found on sandy hillsides, in clearings and can easily be grown at home, given the right conditions. In southern Ontario, the cactus is found along the shore of Lake Erie, mostly in nature preserves.
There are two large areas that the Prickly Pear appears. The first area stretches from the Big Creek National Wildlife Area all the way to Long Point National Wildlife Area. And the second area is located around the Fingal Wildlife Management area, which is south of London. The cactus has been reported to occur in a handful of other locations around the area, but those are relatively small.
In Ontario, the cactus is listed as an endangered species due to the erosion of its shoreline habitats, the overgrowth of trees that smother them with excess shade, and from being out-competed by invasive plants like Japanese Knotweed and White Sweet Clover. They also face the threat of being trampled by humans or being illegally harvested by people for use in their gardens, despite the plant being readily available from domestic growers.
Growing Them At Home
Eastern Prickly Pears are an excellent addition to a garden if you have a place for them. If not in your garden, they also grow well in containers if you use a sandy cacti mix and fertilize them when appropriate. You can either grow them from seed in the spring or by gentle breaking off a pad and rooting it in a pot of cacti soil. To encourage the growth of more pads, you can fertilize them with a 10 -10 -10 mix. To encourage more flowers and fruit you can apply a 0 -10 -10 mix. It is important that you do not fertilize your cacti in the winter.
Aside from being an excellent aesthetic addition to your garden, both the ripe fruits and pads can be eaten once the spines have all been removed. The fruits can be peeled, pulped and strained of seeds to produce an ambrosia-like substance that can be mixed into drinks or used to make candy. On the other hand, the pads can have their spines and skin scraped off with a knife before being chopped up and fried like zucchini slices. Compared to the larger specimen down south, the north has Eastern Prickly Pears that grow rather small. Because they do not grow to be very large, they are not very good for eating.
If you would like to learn more about how you can help protect Ontario’s only native cactus, visit the provincial government’s official page: https://www.ontario.ca/page/eastern-prickly-pear-cactus