Prickly beauties best seen at a distance

The first time I observed the beautiful yellow blooms of the Eastern Prickly-Pear Cactus, I was on a plant rescue for the Heritage Garden at the Ohio Governor’s Residence. Large clumps were blooming everywhere along a runway close to a small airport in northern Ohio.

A few years ago, fellow OSUE Brown County Master Gardener volunteer Susan Barber shared a “start” of the prickly beauty and added a warning, “Don’t ever handle this without heavy gloves.”

I planted the cactus close to a weeping crabapple tree and soon realized I had made a serious error. I would check on the cactus every time I got the mail and would find the stems scattered and pulled up from the ground. After a closer look, I discovered deer tracks around the area. The deer were walking on the cactus to reach the crabapples. The only good news is that they may have left with a few spines in their legs.

My patch of cactus has never grown too big because of my deer “buddies,” and a few times as I have weeded around it, I accidentally touched the stems and they penetrated my cloth gloves. I spent the next few days applying liquid white glue to my fingers trying to eradicate the spines. Now I admire these beautiful yellow flowers (sometimes with red centers) from a safe distance.

Last year, the Wednesday Weeders at the Governor’s Heritage Garden enjoyed learning about cooking prickly-pear cactus. I have to admit that I will probably never try it at home after suffering through those few little spines embedded in my fingers.

Robert L. Henn, author of “Wildflowers of Ohio,” describes Eastern Prickly-Pear (Opuntia humifusa) as being recognized more often by its distinctive stems rather than by its flowers. The stems are large, flattened, jointed pads, three inches wide, and are covered with needle-like spines and tiny barbed spines that are difficult to remove from the skin. This is the only native cactus growing east of the Mississippi River. It is a rare plant in Ohio, listed as a potentially threatened species by the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves and is a native to Ohio.

Prickly-pear cactus can be found in select sites throughout Ohio and thrives in dry, rocky, sandy areas such as dunes, prairies and shores. June and July are the months you can catch this prickly beauty in bloom.

I can’t believe that it is almost time to talk about our July list of gardening tasks. My tomatoes have grown a foot with all this rain and heat. It is time to tuck the vines back inside the cages and check for signs of disease. It might be time to start the weekly preventative treatment with fungicide.

Don’t forget to email your gardening questions to OSUE Brown County Master Gardener volunteer Mike Hannah at

Faye Mahaffey is an OSU Master Gardner volunteer.