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November 28, 2023

LSU AgCenter's Weekly Message

Pokey, Spikey Plants in Louisiana, Part 2: Palmettos and Prickly Pear Cacti

My last article discussed several types of prickly plants that are native to Louisiana, including several yuccas and an agave.

The next two plants are in the palm family. Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) is closely related to the cabbage or sabal palm. Leaves of dwarf palmetto are similar to those of cabbage palm, but dwarf palmetto doesn’t form the tall stem or trunk that cabbage palm does. Stems often remain belowground. Unlike most plants discussed in this series, dwarf palmetto tends to grow in wet areas and is often seen growing as an understory plant in moist woods. It’s found in most parishes of Louisiana. Individual leaves, including the leaf stem (petiole), can reach 5 to 8 feet long.

Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) looks similar to dwarf palmetto, but the petioles of saw palmetto have spines along the edges, while dwarf palmetto petioles do not. Also, saw palmetto forms aboveground stems that can become quite thick, though they often grow along the ground. Saw palmetto tends to grow on drier sites than dwarf palmetto does and is not as common in Louisiana.

Bees visit dwarf palmetto and saw palmetto flowers, and wildlife eat the fruit. Fruit of saw palmetto is sometimes harvested to make an herbal supplement.

One might be surprised to learn that several species of prickly pear cacti are considered native to Louisiana. These include eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa; AKA low prickly pear or Devil’s-tongue), twistspine prickly pear (O. macrorhiza), cockspur prickly pear (O. pusilla), and erect prickly pear (O. stricta).

Eastern prickly pear appears to be the most widely distributed in Louisiana. It grows on very well-drained, sunny sites and tends to be wider than tall, typically not growing much more than 18 inches high. Flowers are yellow and sometimes have a red center. The plant not only has obvious, large spines on the pads but also has smaller, hair-like spines called glochids on both pads and fruit.

The fruit of prickly pear cacti is called “tuna” in Spanish. I had a Peruvian apartment-mate who shared some with me one time. (I can’t say I remember how it tasted.) The fruit is most often cultivated from a prickly pear species called Barbary fig (O. ficus-indica), but the fruit of eastern prickly pear is also edible. Young pads can also be eaten. As food, they’re called nopales. Great care must be taken when handling and preparing either the fruit or pads, since both have glochids.

Let me know if you have questions.

Click here for previous LSU AgCenter's Weekly Messages

Dr. Mary Helen Ferguson is an Extension Agent with the LSU AgCenter, with horticulture responsibilities in Washington and Tangipahoa Parishes. Contact Mary Helen at mhferguson@agcenter.lsu.edu or 985-277-1850 (Hammond) or 985-839-7855 (Franklinton).

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