FROM THE GROUND UP: A prickly business

PHOTO BY PAM BAXTER Bright yellow summer flowers brighten up prickly pear cactus.

It’s possible that one reason why I love the natural world is that while it doesn’t always look organized, it always makes sense. What baffles me sometimes, though, is seeing how people choose to use plants in unnatural ways, for instance a giant blue spruce blocking the front entrance to a house or a forsythia hedge trimmed into ugly stubs.

I find it a challenge to believe that people find those things attractive, so I tell myself that maybe they just don’t understand proper placement. After all, on a large property a single blue spruce in the middle of a lawn or a row of them as a windbreak can be beautiful. Forsythia is gorgeous when planted where it has room to be left to branch out into cascades of bright, yellow blossoms. But what about when a plant just doesn’t seem to have anything to recommend it?

This is the case for me with prickly pear cactus, which I’ve noticed on some of my walking explorations; planted, typically at a mailbox or otherwise bordering onto a street curb or driveway. Part of it is that these desert plants seem out of place in our lush, northeastern landscape. Another factor is that to me the plants look lifeless, their flat pads just sort of listlessly piled up on top of each other. And I’m not particularly drawn to plants with thorns.

A couple of weeks ago I had at least a partial change of heart toward the prickly pear. I finally walked past the right properties at the right time and found the beds of drab cacti bursting with some of the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen; delicate petals of a bright, translucent yellow making a surprising contrast to the heavy, thorny pads.

With origins most likely in Mexico, prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) is now grown throughout arid and semi-arid areas around the world. The website botanical-online.com says that it is “one of the most important agronomic cacti in the world.” The plant is sometimes planted to create natural fencing or to protect the soil from erosion and drought. The leaves are edible (once the spines are removed) as are the purplish fruits, which may be eaten raw or processed into jelly.

To eat the pads (called “cladodes”) I think one would have to be pretty hungry and also have a lot of time. The instructions for safely removing not just the large thorns but also the “glochids” are pretty intimidating.

Glochids are minute, hard-to-see, barbed hairs that grow in clusters on the leaf pads, which are technically stems. If the glochids become embedded in the skin, they cause painful irritation. It is important to always wear heavy gloves when handling this — or any — cactus and to keep your hands away from your eyes as well as your skin.

Early in the twentieth century, botanist and horticulturist Luther Burbank worked on developing a spineless cactus in an effort to create a good forage plant for cattle in the arid western and southwestern states. His more than 60 varieties of spineless cacti didn’t catch on as cattle food, but there are spineless hybrids available for home landscapes, though I haven’t seen any of these.

Prickly pear cactus is easy to propagate. Just ask a friend or neighbor for one of the pads. Let the cut portion dry for a few days then place it cut side down in slightly damp sand. The plants need full sun, but proper location is all they’ll need from you once established. (During the first year, make sure they get watered once a month.) After that, they’re fine with minimal rainfall and don’t require feeding. In our area, perhaps the most important characteristic of the prickly pear cactus is that it is resistant to deer.

Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to pcbaxter@verizon.net, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Join the conversation at “Chester County Roots,” a Facebook page for gardeners in the Delaware Valley. Go to Facebook, search for Chester County Roots, and “like” the page. To receive notice of updates, click or hover on “Liked” to set your preferences.

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