Growing low to the ground and hidden in the spring vegetation on a well-drained sandy ridge or a sunny rocky slope, the native Eastern prickly pear cactus, also known as devil’s-tongue, finally reveals its location when those magnificent yellow blooms appear.
The prickly pear can bloom over a few weeks in the late spring through early summer, but each one of those beautiful yellow flowers lasts but only one day. The blooms, which are great for the pollinators, soon will be replaced by the vitamin-rich edible pear shaped fruit from which the cactus gets its name.
The fruit, seeds, pads and spines of the prickly pear cactus have been used by the indigenous people throughout the ages. The early explorers sometimes found a challenging and painful travel, where there was an abundance of the prickly pear, as they forged new trails.
Wildlife, such as land turtles, ground squirrels and even deer are known to eat the pads and fruit of the prickly pear.
Conditions are right for the prickly pear cactus here in the Midwest, where there still is undisturbed habitat on the sandy prairies, sandy savannas and the sunny, well-drained open and rocky hillsides.
The Eastern prickly pear is the more common prickly pear found in Illinois, but there also is the Brittle prickly pear cactus, which is found in the far northwestern county of Jo Daviess and is considered endangered in Illinois.
There also is the big-rooted prickly pear that also is found in Illinois and looks very similar to the Eastern prickly pear.
The Eastern prickly pear grows from New Mexico, north to Montana and east to the Atlantic and south into Florida, according to United States Department of Agriculture NRCS National Plant Database.
The cactus also is found in far southern Ontario, which is at the northern edge of its range but is reported endangered by the Canadian Wildlife Federation.