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Whether you call it Devil's Tongue, Indian Fig or simply Prickly Pear, it is one plant that doesn't get enough recognition for what it brings to the creatures in the wild. It's not altogether evil...
One of my favorite things to do in the sand-hills of northwest Florida, is to wander through the woods, with my trusty, four legged hiking partner as he chases rabbits through the saw palmetto patches just ahead of me. A walk in the woods can bring calm to a world filled with turmoil. It is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Making my way over the tufts of wire grass, around the palmetto patches and under the low hanging limbs of the live oaks, I think, "This is a good day, all is well with the world," or something to that effect. It is then that I feel it, a burning pain on my shin and ankle that is so intense, it brings tears to my eyes. Immediately, I know that I have walked right up against a Prickly Pear Cactus Opuntia humifusa. Devil's Tongue! It is at this point, I realize, how the well deserved nickname came to be.
Prickly Pear Cactus Opuntia humifusa New buds on pads
The fearsome looking spines that are easily seen on the pads of the Prickly Pear Cactus are not the worst of it. Glochids are tiny ‘hairs' on the plant that are very hard to see. These have barbed ends and once they are lodged in your skin they are extremely difficult to get out. You will know that they are there because you'll feel them whenever something touches the area where they are lodged.
Bee on Prickly Pear Cactus Opuntia humifusa
In my family, we have a few ways of dislodging these little devils. Here is a list of the things we use to accomplish this.
° Tweezers ° Magnifying glass ° Good light ° Elmer's Glue ° Duct tape ° Warm, very soapy water ° Rubbing alcohol
1. Remove the larger spines with tweezers, get close to the skin and pull out with steady, even pressure. This will hurt! Also, remove the clustered ‘hairs'. These should be easy to see.
2. Now, you will need the magnifying glass so you can see the little ‘hairs' left behind. Use tweezers to pull them out. Keep in mind, there are usually more than you see right off. These are tough devils to get out, so be patient, it will take some time. (Or, leave the tweezers out of it for now and move on to step 3 or 4)
3. Instead of going right at the ‘hairs' with the tweezers, you can squeeze Elmer's Glue on the area, let it dry for 30-45 minutes and peel it off. It will bring a large portion of the ‘hairs' with it.
4. We've all heard about the miracles of duct tape. Around here, no matter what goes wrong, duct tape will fix it! So, while looking for a way to be rid of these little devils, we decided duct tape was worth a shot. I'm happy to report that it too, works well in removing the ‘hairs'. Cut a piece large enough to cover the affected area, place it directly on the skin, wait at least 30 minutes and peel it off. (You will want to allow the skin to get warm under the tape)
5. Once you feel that you've removed all the ‘hairs', wash the area in warm, very soapy water.
6. I pour rubbing alcohol right over the area after it has been washed.
*These are my tips for dealing with Prickly Pear Cactus barbs, NOT medical advice.
Some people have been known to get infections from these cactus spines. I would suggest seeing a medical doctor if you feel that the irritation, inflamation or pain doesn't subside quick enough for you to feel comfortable about it. After all, you are the only person that can make that call.
Bee on Prickly Pear Cactus Opuntia humifusa
Prickly Pear Cactus Opuntia humifusa
Prickly Pear Cactus is not all bad. It is one of the things that make living in a very hot climate with poor, sandy soil, worth it. The plant itself, if left undisturbed, will grow to around 2' tall and have pads that can reach 6" across. New pads erupt from the larger, older pads. They grow straight up and then fall over to sprawl across the ground.
Prickly Pear Cactus blooms a spectacular yellow blossom from spring till fall. It also produces fruit, called tunas. The fruit tastes like watermelon and can be used to make jelly, among other things. It can also be eaten raw. I have observed gopher tortoises eating the pads. Mourning doves, Bob White quail and Wild Turkey will eat the fruit of the Prickly Pear Cactus.
The Prickly Pear Cactus deserves a second look, an unbiased look. One not colored by the pain of the accidental misstep while walking in the woods.
The next time you happen on one, take a closer look at it. Admire it's beauty, because it is quite beautiful.
All photographs used in this article are my own, taken in northwest Florida.
About Jacqueline Cross
I'm a native Floridian...feet planted in the shifting sands of northwest FL. but my heart strings are tightly knotted to the hills of Tennessee.
I live with my poodle, Minnie Pearl, Zsa Zsa the cat who runs the whole show and a new addition, Kitty Belle.
I'm a writer, gardener, quilter, cross stitcher, soapmaker and nature lover. Mother to 3 wonderful daughters & Nana to 6 perfect grandchildren.
I also write for Suite101.com and was promoted to Feature Writer in the vegetable gardens section in 2008.