Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 19, 2009

The Pear is Everywhere

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:39 am

Quick Michiganders. Think of the last wild plant you would expect to encounter in the S.E. portion of our state. You might say the Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower whose odoriferous bloom smells like a decaying cow or perhaps the ancient Welwitchia which looks like a pile of yard waste. If you came up with either of these plants then chances are you will be very disappointed with my ultimate answer. Actually, I’m thinking something much less dramatic in this case. I’m talking pear here – prickly pear cactus to be exact.

As a natural resident of the western part of the state I am familiar with the prickly pads found in the sandy fields of Newaygo and in the sand dune country of Lake Michigan. As a transplanted resident of S.E. Michigan I am also aware of the cactus population just over the border in N.W. Ohio. As an ignorant traveler to the beaches of North Carolina I was delighted by the sight of numerous clusters of prickly pear scattered among the dune grasses (here’s one), but I was caught off guard by finding one of these plants in southern Wayne County.

In retrospect, I should have realized that the Prickly Pear is not just a desert plant it is an everywhere plant. There are over 50 species and they enjoy the most northerly (and easterly) distribution of any North American cactii. They even spread into eastern Ontario and British Columbia! Imagine that, a Canadian cactus. There are several types in this area, but the particular pincushion pad in question is called the Eastern Prickly Pear aka Opuntia homifusa.

The Eastern Prickly Pear cactus is not a pretty looking thing. It is, as you can see from my Wayne county example above, this one earns the nick-name of “Devil’s tongue.”  Like the devil his-self, they survive by staying low and lean. During the winter, all moisture is drawn from the fleshy pads and they take on the wrinkled appearance of a catcher’s glove. Summer finds them re-hydrating, growing new pads, and flowering with bright yellow blooms. These pads are evenly covered with raised clusters called areoles- each areole armed with a few prominent spines and a tight cluster of reddish brown bristles.  One needn’t worry about the big thorns, it’s those nasty bristle spines that get you. I guess you could say that the devil is in those details.

Even during my brief encounter with this individual plant, I brushed up against it and received a few detached bristle spines as a reward. These tiny spines, called glochids, are nettle-like in persuasion and manage to work their way into your skin in quick order and create a rashy reaction. Interestingly enough, the parasitic young of our native clams are also called glochidia. This name refers to something that attaches on for an irritating ride. To be fair, the plant is only trying to defend itself against an army of herbivores.  At its core it is a succulent treat and is widely eaten by man and beast alike. The pear-like fruits are considered delicacies – once they are exorcised, of course.

We can go on pretending that the prickly pear as an oddity in our realm, but it really is nothing more than a fascinating part of the home team.

1 Comment »

  1. The prickly pears in my home garden have buds! You can see last’s year’s bloom here.

    Comment by Monica the Garden Faerie — June 20, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

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