03 June 2011

Cactus flowers

I have a cactus in a planter box. Several of them, actually. I leave them outside all winter, and they don't seem to mind much. Right now they are flowering. CHM brought them to me in the form of cuttings off a plant he has in his garden the United States.

Opuntia robusta or humifusa ?

In the planter with the cactus are some little joubarbes des toits — variously known as "hens and chicks" or "houseleeks" I believe. The genus is Sempervivum. I read in the Larousse Gastronomique that some varieties of joubarbes are edible. You trim and cook them like artichokes. I've heard local people here call them petits artichauts. One day I'll have to try them.

A prickly pear flower

The cactus pads are also edible, of course. I've never tried cooking them either. This particular cactus, which is a prickly pear, looks like Opuntia robusta, which is native to Mexico and has been naturalized in parts of Australia, where it is seen as a "noxious weed." The flowers produce the cactus fruit, which is edible. The fruits have to be peeled or scraped very carefully to remove all their tiny spines and needles before you eat them.

Opuntia variety and Sempervivum tectorum

I like growing the cactus but it's hard to work with of course. If you want to transplant it, you have to be very careful or you'll end up with a lot of little spines sticking into your hands. Cactus pads or leaves are called « articles » in French, and the Opuntia pads are « articles plats en forme de raquettes » that are called « cladodes ». Some people call the Opuntia plant « un cactus-raquettes ». The fruits or "pears" are called « figues de Barbarie » in French.

Another Opuntia blossom

Some people might be surprised to know that cactus plants grow on the sand dunes and sandy shorelines of the North Carolina coast (where I was born and grew up). I assume they are native plants, because they've always been there as far as I or my mother can remember. It's quite a surprise to step on one when you are barefoot at the beach. They, along with sand spurs, are a good reason always to wear sandals or flip-flops around there.

The "pear pad" or Dune Prickly Pear of North Carolina

We called them "pear pads" when I was growing up, and they also are a species of prickly pear — in other words, an Opuntia. They thrive in high temperatures and sandy, well-drained soil. I took pictures of some (above) growing along a sandy shore when I was on Harkers Island in North Carolina in March. According to this Duke University web page, they are called Opuntia pusilla, or the Dune Prickly Pear.

And this morning, I found this other web page on that Duke University site. Evidently, there is a prickly-pear cactus native to the North Carolina coastal plain called Opuntia humifusa. It probably grows in other states, including Virginia. In the pictures, it sure looks a lot like the cactus plants I'm growing.


  1. Thank you for the Duke's link. That's exactly what it is, Eastern Prickly-pear. Since North Carolina is next-door neighbor to Virginia, that's why I've been able to grow that cactus in Arlington for years. I never knew were it came from if only from the gutter were I picked a cutting on my way to the metro and work, years ago. I took some cuttings to California and it is thriving there, but is not spreading as much as the one in Virginia. Maybe too hot!

    Now, it is only appropriate that you grow a N.C. native cactus in your French yard. LOL! My Opuntia humifusa, in my yard in Paris, is growing, but no flower yet. Not enough sun probably. It is very hardy though.

  2. Beautiful photos.

    I've never stepped on a prickly pear barefooted. When I was a child I was barefoot all summer and have stepped in a warm cow patty which is a unique experience!

  3. Hi Evelyn, I'm sure I must have stepped on a pear pad sometime in my life, but I don't have any traumatic memories of it. Pear pads must grow on the SC and GA beaches too. I'm off tomorrow morning, in a rented Nissan Qashquai mini-SUV, headed to points north and east of the big city. It should be fun, even though the weather is supposed to turn rainy and even stormy. (I hope it does.)

  4. Have a great time, Ken! I can't wait for photos :)


  5. I was wondering what you were going to do car-wise. It wouldn't have been fair on Walt to leave him stranded 'on the hill' without any means of transportation into the village, now would it? Have a safe trip and enjoy your visit north!

  6. Hello Martine,
    You're right. Just like last year, I'm renting a car from St-Aignan for the duration of the trip back to where it starts with Ken. Like that Walt is not stuck without any kind of transportation.

  7. I have no idea what a Qashquai is, but it sounds like a good name for a road trip. Bonne route, Ken and CHM! BTW a gps is a helpful tool for travel-maybe the Qashquai will come with one.

  8. The Mexican grocery stores here sell the de-thorned prickly pear leaves in the produce section. They are often used by cutting them into strips, cooked and put into burritos etc. They are call "napolitas" in Mexican cooking.

    Best way to transplant those cactii is to let the soil dry, dig the hole(s) then wrap them in a thick towel so you can pull them out. I learned this lesson the hard way.

  9. Prickly pear cactus even survives in my garden in Minnesota. They are hardy little things and that beautiful yellow flower (which only lasts a day, alas) is the reason I put up with all the stickers I get from them.
    Barb in MN

  10. I've heard of Prickly Pears, but I can't remembere in what context.

  11. I removed the previous post because of a gross grammatical error. Here I go again.

    In all my years studying French, I was never taught the various terms relating to cacti. Thanks for the lesson!

    Bonne route and regards to chm.

  12. Hello Cheryl,

    Thanks and regards to you too.

    Be at ease, I guess 99% of French people don't know anything about the vocabulary pertaining to cacti [or cactuses, as I've heard! LOL]. I knew some of them because I've been a cactus lover since my teens. And that's partly why I love SoCal.

  13. Prickly pear in Australia was an absolute disaster, completely taking over grazing land. It is now well controlled, due to one of the earliest successful examples of introducing a biological control. Not so far from where we lived there is a memorial to the Cactoblastus moth.

  14. You always associate cacti with being sort of ugly and prickly, but these are actually lovely!


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