Opuntia stricta (op-UN-shee-uh STRIK-tuh) is one of four native Opuntia species that occur in Florida. Erect Pricklypear grows north to south on the east and west coast and is quite common growing along coastal dunes, coastal grasslands, coastal hammocks and on shell mounds. The height of this species is variable but is typically around 2-4 feet with an equally variable spread of 1-4 feet. Opunta stricta makes an interesting plant in residential landscapes in hot, dry locations where other plants would be impossible to grow. Its use as a low growing, visually intriguing hedge is worth considering if kept away from areas that are frequently used, but would be ideal to keep intruders away.
The large, bright yellow flowers typically bloom around February into July and are very showy, attracting many pollinating insects including native bees. Ants are also attracted to Opuntia and in turn, protect against herbivores that might otherwise damage the plant. After flowering, the jewel-toned fruits will form and they also provide ornamental interest. These fruits are edible and enjoyed by birds and mammals, including humans. The seeds from the fruit are mainly dispersed by mammals and birds and can remain viable for up to a decade. The young pads are edible when the many thorns have been properly removed and may be eaten raw in a salad, alone or cooked in a number of creative ways.
The pads of Opuntia and other Cactaceae are not leaves, but in fact, stems. The pads contain eyes called areolas where the spikes emerge from. The spikes are technically modified leaves and very sharp. Besides the obvious large spikes, they also contain very fine hair-like spikes that can get embedded into your skin despite your best effort to be careful near the plant or while handling the pads or fruits. The areolas will grow roots if removed from the parent plant and can easily be propagated this way and the base of the pad will also root if placed on top of soil or sand.
Opuntia stricta is an example of a well-behaved plant in its native region, but one that is very invasive in other parts of the world. In 1925, the Cactus Moth (Cactoblastis cactorum) was introduced from Argentina to Australia to control Opuntia species that came from North America and South America. The Cactus Moth has since spread to the United States and is now a threat to our native Opuntia species.