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In The Garden: Prickly pear cactus is like candy for tortoises

By Staff | Apr 7, 2020
PHOTO PROVIDED Prickly pear cactus

The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) is from the Cactaceae family and is native to Florida and the deserts of the American Southwest. Although they look like they only belong in the deserts, there is a variety that loves the sandy shores of the island beaches. They are highly drought tolerant, of course, but also have developed a good salt tolerance.

There are many varieties of the prickly pear cactus, but the one seen on the islands may range in height from 1 foot to several feet tall. They form clumps or shrub-like mounds and have a very course texture. The actual leaves of the cactus are unnoticeable, it is the plate-like stems of the plant that are often thought of as the leaves. These sections are the fleshy plates that reach a length of 2 inches to 6 inches, are green and covered with 3-inch long spines, so watch your step.

The prickly pear cactus mainly blooms in the summer with flowers ranging in color from orange, red and purple, to white. It will bloom over a period of several weeks, but the individual flowers will only last for one day. The fruit of the cactus is oval in shape and about 1-inch to 3-inches long, fleshy and purple in color. The plant grows well in full sun.

The best part of having the prickly pear cactus in your yard or along your beach is the gopher tortoises. They love to eat the flowers, fruit and even the spiny plates of the plant. It is a favorite in their diet. You have to wonder how they manage to eat something so prickly. Gopher tortoises do not have teeth, but they do have a beak to break off foliage and food. They also get their water from the plants they eat and that may be why they are willing to brave the stickers for some prickly pear cactus.

In The Garden is a joint effort by all at the local garden center, at 3889 Sanibel-Captiva Road, Sanibel. For more information, contact 239-395-5859 or visit “http://www.facebook.com/rswalshinthegarden”>www.facebook.com/rswalshinthegarden.