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Species at Risk

Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus

Opuntia humifusa

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

Species at Risk - Who Knew?

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.
© Parks Canada / D. A. Wilkes / (17), 1985

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.