The Great Florida Outdoors: The Florida Cactus


Dr. Robert Norman, Clinical Professor, Dermatology, Nova Southeastern University

When I found a good spot for an office next to Sickles High School, the owner had several rather old cacti on the property. I really did not want to get rid of them, but the owner’s house needed to be knocked down and the office building would take up much of the property. I always have a fond memory of those old creatures, and I enjoy finding them when I am out exploring. Recently I was biking on the path between Alonso High School and the bypass canal when I spotted this magnificent specimen:

According to the UF/IFAS website, the Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa) is native to the U.S., Mexico, and South America, and grows well in many parts of the world. This plant is a member of the genus Opuntia which includes a number of species. The pads are rapidly-growing flattened stems that are elliptical or oblong shaped and range in size (generally between 4 and 18 inches long) depending on the species. The plant has smooth skin that can be bright green to blue-gray in color and some species have spines. Depending on the species and variety, Opuntia spp. flowers come in a range of warm-hued colors like orange, yellow, red, and pink.

The prickly pear is drought and salt tolerant and has few pest or disease problems. It can grow in the sandiest, well-drained soils and thrives in full sun.

The plants are a diversified food source. Both the pads (cladode, nopales) and the fruits (sometimes called tunas) are edible. Parts of the cactus can be used for everything from main dishes, vegetable sides, breads and desserts, beverages, cocktails, candies, and more. Pads are best eaten when they are young and tender and are said to taste a bit like green beans. The fruit flavor depends on the particular variety and has been compared to strawberries, watermelons, honeydew melons, figs, bananas, or citrus. Prickly pear fruits can be eaten raw or prepared for jams or preserves, jellies, and candies and are delicious at room temperature or chilled.

Six to nine prickly pear species are native to Florida. One prickly pear species is the devil’s tongue. It grows 18-36 inches tall and looks like a collection of teardrop-shaped flat pads stacked vertically. The green, sometimes-purple, spiny pads produce yellow flowers and red or pink berries on their edges. This cactus spreads outwardly over the beach or the ground (source OGM newsletter).

The Opuntia ficus-indica species is a Florida cactus that can grow up to 16 feet tall. The Opuntia stricta species is only found in Florida and the tropics.

Another Florida native is the dildo cactus (yes, that’s the actual name). Its shape is like a long, narrow column. According to the National Park Service, this cactus can grow over 20 feet tall. It produces white flowers that are only open at night as well as shiny, red fruit.

Two species of endangered cactus grow in south Florida. The first, called Simpson’s apple cactus, produces fragrant, night-blooming flowers pollinated by bats, moths, and other insects that are active at night. This cactus is also called “Queen of the Night.” The second endangered cactus is the mistletoe cactus. The last known mistletoe cactus grew in the Everglades but was destroyed by a hurricane in 2005, according to the National Park Service.

How do you tell the age of a cactus? A myth is that you can tell the age of a cactus by the number of its arms. Most articles I read noted that to get an estimate of its age, you should always measure the main body of the cactus plant from its tallest point. It may take up to 10 years for a cactus to grow just 1 inch.

Why do saguaro cacti grow arms? Because saguaros grow so slowly, it might take 50 to 75 years for them to grow their first arms. Arms are important to them because they store extra water. After 100 years, they usually have several arms and after 200 years they have many arms. The iconic saguaro cactus that is typically seen in the Sonoran Desert of the American West can grow to be quite tall. In fact, the tallest of this type of cactus grew to be 78 feet tall. The cactus in the picture may have been alive long before Alonso High School or Westchase or Town n’ Country were created.

Where can you find these wonders of nature like the Florida cacti?

Get out and enjoy the Great Florida Outdoors!

Dr. Norman is an advanced master naturalist graduate of the FMNP program from UF and a board-certified dermatologist based in Tampa and Riverview. He can be reached at 813-880-7546.


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