Eastern Prickly Pear- Optunia humifusa

Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus
Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus

This cactus is native of eastern North America from Ontario to Florida west to Montana and New Mexico. It is listed as a species of Special Concern in Connecticut, Endangered in Massachusetts, Vulnerable in New York, and Rare in Pennsylvania.

When we came home from the desert, I was shocked to see prickly pear here in Delaware. I had grown up in Maryland and have no recollection of ever seeing it there at all, but here in Delaware I have been finding it everywhere. The sandy, sea level land is a great habitat apparently! It is amazing to see how much larger it can get here where the rain levels are so much greater than in the San Luis Valley of Colorado.

Just as its western cousins, Eastern Prickly Pear is edible. The pads, fruits, and seeds can be eaten fresh or dried for later use. The spines can be removed through singeing or rolling in the sand (as we learned from Mexican ladies out west). Internationally the tunas (fruit) are so popular that the worldwide production is more than twice strawberries, avocados or apricots!

The sap and pads were used in medicine by the eastern tribes of Native Americans. The sap was a wound dressing, and applied it to warts. The pads (nopales) peeled and used in poultice form on wounds, and sores, snake bites and rheumatism. A tea made from the pads was used for lung ailments.

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