The Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus
By Maureen Schwer
Keep your eyes open and don’t miss the only cactus found in Indiana!
When thinking of Indiana, cacti do not pop directly to mind, right? Interestingly, there is one cactus that does grow here, the eastern prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa). This particular cactus is native to the lower 48 states of the United States. It is not only a beautiful plant, but it is also edible, provides food and protection for wildlife and can be used in native landscaping.
How is it that a “desert” plant exists here anyway? Indiana has such humid summers and variable weather throughout the year that one wouldn’t think cacti could grow here. But at Kankakee Sands, the conditions are perfect for the prickly pear to thrive in the dry areas and hilltops because, just as the name states, the area is full of sand. For cacti to thrive they need well-drained sandy soil and lots and lots of sun.
Although cacti in the Midwest might seem strange, their existence here has provided food for both wildlife and people for thousands of years. There are three different parts of the plant that can be eaten: the pads, the flower and the fruit/pear. If you are itching to try these tasty treats, grocery stores provide the pads on occasion. An even better option would be to incorporate the cactus into your own personal landscaping and harvest the plant yourself. Please do not take any part of the cactus from Kankakee Sands or any Nature Conservancy site. They are for the insects and animals.
The prickly pear is a wonderful option to use in native landscaping if the right growing conditions are present. Patience is required for this particular plant to get established, as it can take two years to fully mature and fruit. They can be planted from seed or cut from a plant and placed directly on sandy soil to take root. This plant would be an amazing addition to any garden being that it is both beautiful and useful.
A variety of wildlife utilizes the prickly pear cactus. It is a great pollen source for beetles, butterflies, bees and many other insects. The seeds are eaten and dispersed by a variety of wildlife including birds, rabbits, ground squirrels and the prairie pocket mouse. The spines of the cactus give bobwhite quail protection from predators while nesting and it is used for shade by snakes and lizards found at Kankakee Sands.
A great place to view a plethora of prickly pears is on the Grace Teninga Trail at Kankakee Sands. As you are walking on the trail to the northeast, there is a hilltop overlooking what used to be Beaver Lake and it is filled with the spiny cacti. The Grace Teninga Trail is a 1.9-mile loop and can be accessed from County Road 600 North, one half mile east of the intersection with County Road 200 West.
Grab hiking shoes and plenty of sunscreen to make the trek to the hill now and find them blooming with brilliant, large, yellow flowers that have a red center. If for some reason hiking to see the flowers in July is not possible, don’t fret, they are still showy later in the year. The cacti produce red to purple egg-shaped fruit that grows on the edges of the pads and are produced about two to three months after flowering.
If you’re keen to see one of these plants, just take a trip to the dry sandy areas of Kankakee sands and you are guaranteed to find one!
Maureen Schwer was raised not too far from Kankakee Sands in Beecher, Illinois and earned her Natural Resources and Restoration Ecology degree at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Prairies are an interesting place for Maureen because although they looked like just a sea of grass from a distance, once she stepped into them she realized that the prairie is teaming with plant, animal and insect diversity! It was an unexpected surprise, just like the prickly pear cactus.
The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. For more information click here visit or call the office at 219-285-2184.