Illinois is far removed from the desert climates of America’s southwest, but Will County is home to one species of cactus: the eastern prickly pear. This cactus plant actually has the largest natural range of any cactus that grows in North America and can be found everywhere in the eastern half of the United States and as far west as New Mexico and Montana, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Within the preserves, the prickly pear cactus can be seen at Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve.
The eastern prickly pear grows in dry, open areas. The plant needs to be dry during winter months so it does not rot, so well-drained soil is essential, according to the Forest Service.
This cactus grows to be about 1½ feet tall, and it often sprawls along the ground. The stems or pads of the cactus can be 2 inches to 7 inches long and 1½ inches to 5 inches wide. The pads contain dots called areoles, and these areoles contain the short, sharp barbs called glochids that cacti are known for.
The eastern prickly pear flowers in early summer, producing yellow flowers that can have an orange or reddish-orange center. Like the many prickly pear cacti that grow in the deserts of the southwest, the fruit of the eastern prickly pear cactus is edible, but it is not as sweet as it is on other cacti.
Lead image of prickly pear cactus at Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve by Ronald Kapala
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