When it comes to living along the coast, South Shore residents know only the strong will survive. Such is the case for the eastern Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa). It’s a plant that has adapted and evolved well over time to not only survive, but thrive among the coastal dunes, dry sands, and sandy fields of Long Island’s South Fork communities.
The prickly pear’s normal range does not typically include true deserts but can be found in harsh sandy environments east of the Rockies, from Massachusetts southward to Florida and west to Minnesota and Texas. This is a low-lying plant, and in winter, it can easily be mistaken for some deflated, dried-up plant. But with the vernal equinox and spring rains, the plant revives and rapidly absorbs water in its oval shaped pads. The pads become thick and vibrant green. The pads act as a shield not only to hold moisture but to reflect sunlight and protect the plant from frequent salt spray.
As the season progresses, the plant begins to flourish and produces beautiful waxy yellow flowers that most nectar-eating insects can’t resist. The center of the flower has a reddish-orange fruit, once eaten fresh and raw by Native Americans. Some tribes made candy and chewing gum from the fruit, or mashed it into a sort of applesauce. Mashed fruit was also boiled down into syrup, juice, or jelly and stored for the winter.
While Eastern Prickly Pear normally occurs as scattered individual plants or in small colonies, sometimes they can form impressively large colonies if it persists at the same location for a long period of time. This plant’s flower opens only for a single day, but a colony as a whole may continuously flower for as long as a month. Two of my favorite places to see established colonies of prickly pear are across from Long Beach in Sag Harbor and along the east side of Lighthouse Road after crossing the Ponquogue Bridge in Hampton Bays.
If you miss seeing prickly pear cactus at these two locations, please visit the South Fork Natural History Museum’s native butterfly and wildflower gardens, there are small colonies that can be seen there.
Frank Quevedo is the executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum.