Prickly Pear Cactus

Lovely to behold but be careful when you touch! (Photo courtesy of Wayne Richards, spring 2013)
Lovely to behold but be careful when you touch!
(Photo courtesy of Wayne Richards, spring 2013)

This beautiful flower is a sign of spring and a sign that you need to watch where you walk. The prickly pear cactus, or nopales, are a common site in Texas and range across the western hemisphere from the Rockies to Mexico, from the Galapagos Islands to the sand hills of Florida.  Elsewhere, they are considered an invasive species.  After their introduction in Australia in the late 1700s in an attempt to farm cochineal for red dye, they quickly grew out of control, overrunning 100,000 square miles in Eastern Australia, and causing major ecological damage.

Cactus, cactus everywhere! (Courtesy of Paula Richards)
Cactus, cactus everywhere!
(Courtesy of Paula Richards)

Bees and humming birds love the sweet nectar of the flowers in the spring and numerous animals eat the sweet fruits. Snakes often nest in the cool shade provided by the large branches of cactus pads (cladodes).

Even a cactus has it’s uses for humans.  The fruit is edible but peel it very, very carefully to avoid the spines.  It is used in candies, jellies, a variety of beverages, or just as one would eat an apple or a fig.  The tender young stem segments are often used in Mexican cuisine and can easily be found at your local grocery (nopalitos).  In some countries, such as Malta, prickly pears are planted closely together to provide a low cost, low maintenance fencing.  Scientists are investigating whether the flesh of the cactus (the mucilage) can be used as an inexpensive water filter.