My wife’s maternal grandparents were florists, and they planted a variety of interesting flowering plants in the garden of the house that they built in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania about eighty years ago. My mother-in-law and father-in-law still live in that house, so I have been able to dig up bulbs and take cuttings of the old plants for my own garden. Among them is a prickly pear cactus that blooms every May:
My best guess is that the plant is Opuntia humifusa, eastern prickly pear. It is completely spineless, with smooth, soft-looking pads and buds that invite one to touch it, but it has a secret weapon. Instead of spines, each areole has a cluster of glochids, little barbed hairs that detach at the slightest touch. They’re maddening and virtually invisible. Removing them from skin requires a good pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass.
Despite the glochids, I think this plant is worth growing for its family history, its beautiful yellow flowers, and its red fruit that remain colorful through the autumn and most of the winter, even after the pads have shriveled in the cold. Our local chipmunks seem to enjoy eating the fruit. Then they leave cactus seed poop on the railing of the deck.
In addition to the heirloom Opuntia, I also grow a larger species that is relatively common in local gardens. This plant has a more erect growth habit with long spines on large pads. The pads flop over during the winter but do not shrivel as much as those of O. humifusa. There may be a tag buried down in the middle of the clump, but I am disinclined to search for it. This will have to remain “Opuntia sp.”
Both prickly pears are hardy, tolerant of humidity and rain, and easy to propagate from pads pulled off the main plant. I’m not sure if either of our children will be interested in gardening, but I hope someday to be able to pass on to them a piece of great grandma’s cactus.