What is the Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus?

A cluster of cacti
Special boardwalks permit visitors to view the eastern prickly pear cactus from a safe distance.

The eastern prickly pear cactus is a low-spreading cactus found either in small patches or in large, scattered colonies made up of thousands of stems. The stems, often called pads, are covered with long, sharp spines and tiny barbs that are difficult to see.

The plant's flowers, which range from bright yellow to gold, are one of the summer attractions at Point Pelee National Park of Canada. Although the eastern prickly pear cactus also has a fruit that ripens in the fall, in Ontario, these cacti tended not to reproduce sexually (i.e., through the dispersal of their seeds). Instead, the plant propagates itself by means of its pads, which break off and take root in nearby soil.

Where is the Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus found?

Canadian populations of the eastern prickly pear cactus are limited to extreme southwestern Ontario. The only naturally occurring populations are found in the rare red cedar savannah habitats in the Carolinian life zone of Point Pelee National Park of Canada and Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve on Pelee Island.

Map showing location of the eastern prickly pear cactus in Point Pelee National Park.
In Canada, the eastern prickly pear cactus grows only at the extreme southwestern tip of Ontario.

The eastern prickly pear cactus is widespread throughout central and eastern United States.

As with many other cacti species, the eastern prickly pear cactus needs direct sunlight to survive and thrives in the open woodlands, sandy ridges and dunes of the park and reserve.

What's the status of the Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus?

The appearance of the eastern prickly pear cactus changes throughout the year. The plant's large, pear-shaped fruit is green in the spring and turns red in the fall. This coloration often lasts into the winter or spring, while the bright yellow flowers emerge early in midsummer.

The eastern prickly pear cactus is listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), and is protected under federal law by the Species at Risk Act. The plant is also protected under provincial legislation: it is listed as endangered under Ontario's Endangered Species Act.

What's so special about the Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus?

It's a cactus growing in the wild in Canada! Interestingly, three cold-resistant species of cacti live in Canada's prairies. Although they have wider distributions than the eastern prickly pear cactus, they are also rare, due to the obvious challenge of surviving winter.

Why is the Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus in danger?

A cluster of pads.
The stems, often called pads, are covered with long, sharp spines and tiny barbs that are difficult to see.

The population of the eastern prickly pear cactus in Point Pelee National Park is in relatively good health. The red cedar savannah habitat preferred by the cactus remains intact with the help of seasonal storms that prevent woody, forest vegetation from gaining a foothold along the shoreline. The eastern prickly pear cactus also thrives on the desert-like sandy ridges and dunes of the park.

Other suitable habitat was created when the cedar forests that once covered the Pelee peninsula were cleared for farming by European settlers. When these areas were abandoned, the cacti thrived in the open fields. Now, however, young trees that are re-occupying the sunny fields are beginning to cast shade over cactus colonies.

The survival of the eastern prickly pear cactus in its natural habitat is also threatened by people who transplant the plant, removing it from the park and planting it in their home gardens. The cactus is so attractive and propagates so easily that many would be gardeners have trouble resisting its charms. What's more, shoreline erosion and severe winter storms are also threatening the cactus's critical habitat. In fact, these two factors have nearly eliminated the Fish Point population of the eastern prickly pear cactus.

What is Parks Canada doing to help save the Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus?

Some cacti with the flower buds preparing to bloom.
Studies are looking at which insects pollinate the cactus and analysing how its seeds are spread.

In Point Pelee National Park, the cactus is carefully monitored and managed. Two factors have been identified as vital to the conservation of this species: maintaining suitable habitat in the park and stopping people from transplanting individual plants.

Research and monitoring

Most of the conservation strategies focus primarily on continued research and monitoring to determine the habitat requirements, population genetics, reproduction and dispersal of the eastern prickly pear cactus.

A variety of studies are being conducted to learn more about this endangered species. These studies include looking at which insects pollinate the cactus and analysing how its seeds are spread. This work will provide information that will enable Point Pelee National Park to protect the species and its habitats for future generations.

Point Pelee National Park is also consulting with experts to set vegetation management objectives that will ensure the proper management of the various habitats in the park, including the rare red cedar savannah where the eastern prickly pear cactus is found.

Recovery actions

Point Pelee's hiking trails and park facilities are designed to protect the plants from trampling. Special boardwalks permit visitors to view species such as the eastern prickly pear cactus from a safe distance. At the same time, the park's educational messages regarding the species focus on discouraging removal and encouraging protection of the habitat it needs to survive.

Public education

Exhibits, publications, presentations and interpretive programs encourage visitors to Point Pelee to help protect the eastern prickly pear cactus. By promoting the public's understanding, the park hopes to gain support for the recovery and protection of both the cactus itself and the habitat that is so vital to its survival. Outreach education through news articles, an intensive local in-school program and the park's Web site also help to promote the plight of the cactus both inside and outside the park boundaries.

Working with partners

Point Pelee National Park is currently working with the Universities of Windsor and Guelph to conduct research on the cactus. Park staff are creating a Recovery Team for the species with researchers and the provincial government. The park is also developing and implementing a Carolinian Canada Species at Risk Education Strategy with other public education partners to protect species at risk and their habitats.

How can I help?

A pale yellow cactus flower.
Two factors are vital to the cactus's conservation: suitable habitat and stopping people from transplanting individual plants.

If you are visiting Point Pelee National Park:

  • Follow park guidelines. Stay on trails and abide by the regulations to protect park vegetation, including the cactus. 
  • View the cactus from a safe distance on the trails and encourage other visitors to do the same. If you witness cacti being damaged, please contact park staff. 
  • Participate in interpretive programs and take advantage of the information provided in exhibits, publications and trail guides to learn more about species at risk.
     

At home:

  • Use native plants when landscaping. Obtain these plants from reputable sources that do not harm wild populations. 
  • Learn more about which species at risk live near you and share what you learn with others.