Thursday, July 12, 2012

If a Prickly Pear Falls in the Dunes Does Anyone Hear It?

Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa)
The Prickly Pear cactus with its long spines and deceptively soft-looking stickers that can penetrate one’s skin at even the slightest touch - is often considered by many Floridians to be nothing more than a nuisance plant. However, to our native wildlife and to those who have harnessed its possibilities, the Prickly Pear cactus is a vital source of habitat, beauty, and sustenance.

 In Mexico for instance, nearly every part of the cactus is used:
  • Spines are crafted into trinkets
  • Pads are fed to dairy stock to enhance the flavor of the milk
  • Fibers are pressed into paper
  • Sap can be made into chewing gum
  • Fruits and pads are used in cooking
Even woody dead plants are employed in the construction of houses and furniture – and these are only a few of the many uses!

The Prickly Pear cacti are also critical to wildlife. The pads can provide food and drink, and during times of draught are sometimes the only reliable sources. The threatened Florida Gopher Tortoise is one local species that relies on the resource. The pads, fruits and flowers of the Prickly Pear is a staple of their diet, and since they are rarely seen drinking from still water, they obtain most of their hydration from foods such as the Prickly Pear.

Once you take the time to get to know and understand the Prickly Pear, you can grow to love (or at least respect) this grossly underappreciated plant. Mexico, parts of California, Italy, and the Mediterranean have already embraced the many uses it provides.

Cactoblastis cactorum
Unfortunately, time could be running short for us to develop this appreciation as the Prickly Pear cacti are now being threatened in Florida by the Cactus Moth (Cactoblastis cactorum). This invasive moth species was originally used in Australia during the 1800's to control the spread of the Prickly Pear (considered an invasive plant species in that region). Through its later introduction to the West Indies and Caribbean, the moth has made its way to Florida and beyond, and is expected to have a catastrophic effect on the landscape if its range expands past Louisiana.

There are ways you can help preserve this beautiful and critical plant! Here at the GTM NERR, efforts are being made to treat and/or monitor sections of dunes where the Prickly Pear cacti grow. Volunteers complete “Clean Sweeps” where they sanitize cacti by removing eggsticks, larvae, and infested pads. They also measure plant growth and use a “control-site” with untreated plants that offer room for comparison on the progress of their work. Together we hope to preserve our Prickly Pears and to do our part to help slow the westward spread of the hungry Cactus Moth.

GTM NERR staff and volunteers performing a "Clean Sweep"

To learn more about the research and efforts surrounding the Prickly Pear Cactus and Cactus Moth, or to get involved, visit us at

1 comment:

  1. Great article. It's great to learn more about our environment and habitat. Good info!