Prickly Pear Cactus
Location: Eastern Montana
My sweetheart, Jack, is fleet of foot when it comes to off-trail travel. He zigzagged around the sagebrush, climbing toward a low ridgeline with a stealthy grace while I jogged gorilla-like in a low crouch about 10 feet behind him.
“Get down,” Jack whispered urgently as we neared the crest of land, “Stay right behind me.” I aped his dive to the ground, barely missing the bottoms of his hiking shoes with my teeth.
We crawled forward, trying to be as quiet and concealed as possible, approaching a herd of skittish pronghorns. Then without warning, pain shot through my forearm and knee. I had accidentally crawled across a patch of Prickly pear cactus. Ouch!
A dozen species of Prickly pear poke their prickers into unsuspecting creatures like me. The prairie variety, that I encountered, tend to lie low often hiding in clumps of grass. They have flat fleshy pads that store water, produce blossoms, conduct photosynthesis… and stab unsuspecting photographers like me.
If you look closely, prickly pears have two types of thorns, large ones that grow from tubercles and small ones called “glochids”. The glochids are the troublemakers. These yellow or red hair-like barbs detach instantly, lodging in human skin. Like a splinter, they can be stubborn to remove. I tried getting them out with tweezers, but ended up gently digging them out with a sterilized sewing needle later that night.
Like all true cactus, Prickly pear is native to North America. While they are edible, rich in soluble fibers, their glochids make them tricky to harvest. I think I’ll eat bran flakes instead and watch the ground more closely next time I have to crawl somewhere.