Say "Hello" the the eastern prickly pear cactus, Opuntia humifusa, a Virginia native. When I was and child and later, a college student (eons ago), I visited the Pinelands of New Jersey, home to low-bush blueberries, dwarf conifers, and terrestrial orchids. And cacti. I remember thinking "what the heck is a cactus doing in New Jersey?" Aren't cacti denizens of dusty, arid regions of the American southwest? I first thought that this could not be a cactus. Until I touched it. The tiny spines embedded in my fingers screamed "cacti!" But how did a cactus get there?
According to the Flora of Virginia (2012) (Crowder, [ed]), there are 1800 species and 125-30 genera of cacti all over the United States, including eastern and northern states. They might be more diverse in the southwestern US, but we have 'em too. The prickly pear pictured above was started from one pad, given to me by a friend (thanks CJ!). I potted it up last summer and let it overwinter in my house, where is very kindly produced a yellow bloom in February. At the end of April, I planted it outdoors in a combination of almost equal parts of sand and pea gravel, with a small amount of garden soil, in bright sun. So far, the cactus has taken off, showing signs of new growth- you can clearly see it is not just one pad anymore. The only caveat to planting these cacti in your native Virginia garden is this: watch out for the spines! The spines are reddish and almost too small to see, but you can get them embedded in your skin easily, even just by brushing against the plant. If you do, you need to go inside, and pull these fine, reddish, hair-like spines out with a tweezer. Though they are small, they quickly become irritating. Always wear heavy gloves when dealing with this plant (the spines can go right through thin garden gloves). You can see in the photo a little garden cloth (wire) fencing I have around the plant? This is a reminder to protect me (and inquisitive dogs) from contact.