UF/IFAS Okeechobee County Extension Service

458 Highway 98 North

Okeechobee, FL 34972-2578

Phone: (863) 763-6469

E- mail:  dfculbert@ifas.ufl.edu

June 22, 2006

Quick Links:   Foliage    Flowers   Fruit     Uses    Propagation   References    Florida species chart

Feature Article - for release the week of June 25, 2006

Dan Culbert - Extension Horticulture Agent

 Prickly Pear for pain and pleasure 

Most folks know that cactus grows in deserts, but few realize that here in Florida we also have native Florida cactus.  Cattlemen and land managers generally hate them, but cacti have some desirable features that homeowners may want to consider before doing battle with these sticky succulents.

Today’s column points to prickly pear cactus, one of our Florida natives.  It can be used for food and is grown commercially.  In Florida Yards they can be effective as burglar bushes and once established require little care.  There are some prickly pears that are endangered in natural areas. Others are prohibited as invasive nightmares and have been studied as a plant in need of biocontrol.

Opuntia is the genus in the cactus family that includes prickly pears.  There are about 250 species of these plants,  and all are natives of the New World.   Most are found in drier climates, but 19 native species of these cacti are found east of Mississippi.  Florida boasts nine native prickly pear species, and there’s a chance of finding five of them near our area of the state.

Eastern Pricklypear, Devil's Tongue or Indian fig (Opuntia humifusa) is the species of prickly pear most common in our area.  It grows from Florida to Massachusetts, and west to Michigan and Oklahoma, and has even been reported in Canada.

Depending upon the species, prickly pear plants can grow from one to 20 feet in height. They form irregular clumps or shrub-like mounds with a very coarse texture.  Our local species only grow to 1˝ feet in height and one clump rarely spreads much more than a few feet across.

  Prickly pear cactus have no visible leaves, and their stems are modified into segments or "pads".  Photo: UF/IFAS


A close-up of the "pad" or stem segment of the Eastern Prickly pear shows the long spines, inconspicuous leaves, and the areole spots. Photo: UF/IFAS.

Many cacti do have leaves, but they are usually too small to be seen.  Some cacti have changed these leaves into sharp spines.  The plate-like sections we call “leaves” on prickly pear cactus are actually modified stems and are 2 to 6 inches long.  Stem sections remain green as they get older and are covered with 3-inch long spines. Backing into the larger spines can be quite painful, but the very small spines (glochids) are also found on prickly pear cacti. They are found on the numerous spots (called areoles) on the pads.  These minute glochids can cause a lot of irritation when caught in clothes or skin.

Flowers of the Prickly Pear grow on the top edge of the pads. Photo: Glenn Fleming, USF Herbarium

Closeup of Opuntia Flower.  Photo: UF/IFAS.

Are cacti ugly?  Take a look at this plant when it is covered with a large numbers of flowers and enjoy its attractive show of color.  Prickly pear will bloom for several weeks, but an individual flower lasts only for one day.  Flowers are cup-shaped and yellow or sometimes orange to red.  Blooms appear on the outermost pads and measure 2 to 3 inches across.  

The showy berries may reach a length of 2 to 3 inches and are reddish-purple at maturity.  When ripe during mid to late summer, people can enjoy eating prickly pears - but first the spines and glochids must be removed.  Try using thick leather gloves or singeing them off with fire.  Peeled, sliced and sprinkled with lemon, the berries have an enjoyable, sweet-tart taste.  Preserves made from prickly pear fruit are quite delicious, and the round black seed inside have been roasted and ground into flour.   

Ripening fruit can add color to this plant. Photo: Glenn Fleming, USF Herbarium

Ripened Prickly pear fruit can be eaten fresh or preserved.  Photo: © David S. Seigler, University of Illinois

Young stem segments of some prickly pear are also edible, and are grown much like a vegetable crop.  I have heard of  a producer in Glades County; however, most of this specialty crop comes from western US or Mexico.  Commercially these are called nopales, and low-spine types are grown for obvious reasons.  Commercial available prickly pear fruit are sometimes called tuna or Indian Figs.  The gel-like liquid of a prickly pear cactus can be used like a conditioner. Prickly pears are also reported to have medicinal uses.  Natural red food colorants also come from an insect that inhabits some prickly pears. 

prickly pear cactus

This Santa Rita prickly pear adds a western touch to an Arizona landscape. Photo: Toni Moore, University of Arizona Pima County Cooperative Extension

In it's natural environment, prickly pear provides valuable habitat and food for wildlife. Photo: Bill Combs, Jr., FLDEP

Prickly pears are a valuable plant in native habitats.  Songbirds and small mammals shelter in their spiny den, surrounded by the plant's stems and pads.  Raccoons and gopher tortoises eat the pads and fruits.  Prickly pear fruit and seed are consumed by quail, wild turkey, doves, thrashers and woodpeckers, along with many mammals, such as fox, squirrel and rabbit. White-tailed deer also use the plants as a springtime browse. 

These plants are well-suited to hot, dry conditions. They require a sunny, well-drained site and are tolerant of sandy, alkaline soils. Prickly pears are also well adapted to seaside and rocky locations. They can handle wet conditions for only a very short period of time. Prickly pear can be used as a specimen and border plant in areas where it is not an inconvenience to passersby.  An established row of these makes an impenetrable border for pedestrians.  I have used it under a window as a very effective “burglar bush”.  

Propagation is by division because the seeds may be difficult to germinate. Wrapping a long rolled-up section of newsprint or fabric around a pad provides a convenient handle that avoids the long spines and short glochids.  Pads can then be cut off larger plants with hand clippers. Cut surfaces should be allowed to dry before they are replanted into another location.  The plate-like pads can then be placed on slightly moist sand to obtain rooting. 

Cactoblastus moth caterpillars have been used to control Prickly pear cactus where they have invaded other areas of the world, but have also escaped and are damaging Florida Native cactus populations. Photos (L) Dan Culbert; (R)  D. Habeck and F. Bennett, UF/IFAS.

Generally Opuntia have no pests or diseases of great concern in Florida Yards, but root rot can be a problem in wet locations.   A moth and its hungry caterpillar from Argentina have been used to help control runaway infestations of Prickly Pear species that have invaded Australia and Southern Africa.  Over time, this moth has found its way to Florida and has become a problem to prickly pear growers and certain endangered native Opuntia. Our recent Brain Bowl students learned about how this biocontrol method has created some problems and what is being done about the spread of these Cactoblastus moths

I’ve placed more information on our Okeechobee web page, http://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu.  If you need additional information on prickly pear cactus, please email okeechobee@ifas.ufl.edu or call (863) 763-6469.  Local residents can stop by our office at 458 Hwy 98 North in Okeechobee, and visit our Okeechobee County Master Gardeners from 1 to 5 PM on Tuesday afternoons.


Trade names, where used, are given for the purpose of providing specific information. They do not constitute an endorsement or guarantee of products named, nor does it imply criticism of products not named. The Florida Cooperative Extension Service - Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer authorized to provide research, educational information, and other services to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap, or national origin.  Florida Cooperative Extension Service / IFAS / University of Florida.  Larry A.  Arrington, Dean Last update: 06/22/2006 .  This page is maintained by Dan Culbert  


Black Robert. Cacti. (Dr. Bob's Gardening Tips.) Gainesville: UF/IFAS Environmental Hort Dept,12/30/97. http://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/gt/cacti/cacti.htm

Eastern Prickly Pear. Wikpedia, 5/3/06. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Prickly_Pear 

Gilman, Ed. Opuntia spp. [FPS-448].  Gainesville: UF/IFAS Extension Service, 10/99.http://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/shrubs/OPUSPPA.PDF 

Korhnak, Larry.  Pricklypear (Opuntia humifusa) In Florida Forest Plants -  4-H Forest Ecology Website.  Gainesville UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation, 2006. http://www.sfrc.ufl.edu/4h/Prickly_pear/pricpear.htm 

Opuntia humifusa (Raf.) Devils tongue, Devils-tongue, Devils-toungue.  Discover Life Website. 6/22/06.   [Lots of photos of this species.] http://pick4.pick.uga.edu/mp/20q?search=Opuntia+humifusa 

Rebman, Jon P.  &  Pinkava, Donald J.    OPUNTIA CACTI OF NORTH AMERICA—AN OVERVIEW.  Florida Entomologist,  84(4) December 2001.  http://www.fcla.edu/FlaEnt/fe84p474.pdf 

 Shaw, Joe J. Opuntiads of the USA. (website)  2006.  http://opuntiads.com/ 

Coloring book page of Opuntia, courtesy of Archbold Biological Station

Prickly Pear species of Florida: chart adapted from Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants.

Botanical name

Common Names

Range in Florida

 Click for link to Photos

Opuntia cochenillifera



Photo Available

Opuntia corallicola



Photo Available

Opuntia cubensis




Opuntia ficus-indica



Photo Available

Opuntia humifusa



Photo Available

Opuntia leucotricha


St. Lucie


Opuntia monacanthos


Highlands , Polk


Opuntia pusilla




Opuntia stricta



Photo Available

Opuntia triacanthos




* these Opuntia are not documented in Okeechobee, Glades, Hardee, DeSoto, or Hendry counties .