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Opuntia humifusa

Table of Contents



  Thomas G. Barnes @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Taylor, Jane. 2005. Opuntia humifusa. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [].


SYNONYMS [49,50,87]:
Opuntia ammophila Small
O. compressa (Salisb.) Macbr.
O. impedata Small
O. lata Small
O. pisciformis Small
O. turbinata Small
O. turgida Small
   = Opuntia humifusa var. ammophila (Small) L. Benson

O. austrina Small
O. compressa J.F. MacBr. var. austrina (Small) L. Benson
O. cumulicola Small
O. epurnispina Small
O. pollardii Britt. & Rose
   = Opuntia humifusa var. austrina (Small) Dress

O. calcicola Wherry
O. compressa J.F. MacBr.
O. compressa J.F. MacBr. var. allairei (Grifiths) Weniger
O. compressa J.F. MacBr. var. fuscoatra (Engelm.) Weniger
O. compressa J.F. MacBr. var. microsperma (Engelm. & Bigelow) Weniger
O. opuntia (L.) Karst
O. rafinesquei Engelm.
      =O. humifusa var. humifusa [49,50]


eastern pricklypear
eastern prickly-pear
hardy eastern pricklypear

The scientific name of devil's-tongue is Opuntia humifusa (Raf.) Raf. (Cactaceae) [10,35,39,50].

Hybrids: Devil's-tongue hybridizes with other pricklypears (Opuntia spp.), including erect pricklypear (O. stricta), common pricklypear (O. monacantha), cockspur pricklypear (O. pusilla), and twistspine pricklypear (O. macrorhiza) [10,39].



Devil's-tongue is state listed as a species of special concern in Connecticut, endangered in Massachusetts, vulnerable in New York, and rare in Pennsylvania [81].


SPECIES: Opuntia humifusa

Devil's-tongue is widely distributed across North America. It occurs from Ontario south to Florida; west to Montana and New Mexico; and east to Massachusetts and South Carolina. Devil's-tongue is rare in Ontario, Ohio, and Pennsylvania [50]. The Flora of North America provides a distribution map of eastern devil's-tongue.

FRES12 Longleaf-slash pine
FRES13 Loblolly-shortleaf pine
FRES15 Oak-hickory
FRES16 Oak-gum-cypress
FRES18 Maple-beech-birch
FRES29 Sagebrush
FRES30 Desert shrub
FRES31 Shinnery
FRES32 Texas savanna
FRES33 Southwestern shrubsteppe
FRES35 Pinyon-juniper
FRES38 Plains grasslands
FRES39 Prairie
FRES40 Desert grasslands

STATES/PROVINCES: (key to state/province abbreviations)



7 Lower Basin and Range
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont
14 Great Plains
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands

K023 Juniper-pinyon woodland
K027 Mesquite bosques
K038 Great Basin sagebrush
K039 Blackbrush
K040 Saltbush-greasewood
K044 Creosote bush-tarbush
K045 Ceniza shrub
K053 Grama-galleta steppe
K054 Grama-tobosa prairie
K056 Wheatgrass-needlegrass shrubsteppe
K058 Grama-tobosa shrubsteppe
K059 Trans-Pecos shrub savanna
K060 Mesquite savanna
K062 Mesquite-live oak savanna
K065 Grama-buffalo grass
K066 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
K067 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass
K068 Wheatgrass-grama-buffalo grass
K069 Bluestem-grama prairie
K070 Sandsage-bluestem prairie
K071 Shinnery
K072 Sea oats prairie
K074 Bluestem prairie
K075 Nebraska Sandhills prairie
K076 Blackland prairie
K077 Bluestem-sacahuista prairie
K079 Palmetto prairie
K081 Oak savanna
K082 Mosaic of K074 and K100
K084 Cross Timbers
K085 Mesquite-buffalo grass
K087 Mesquite-oak savanna
K088 Fayette prairie
K089 Black Belt
K090 Live oak-sea oats
K091 Cypress savanna
K099 Maple-basswood forest
K100 Oak-hickory forest
K102 Beech-maple forest
K104 Appalachian oak forest
K110 Northeastern oak-pine forest
K111 Oak-hickory-pine
K112 Southern mixed forest
K114 Pocosin
K115 Sand pine scrub

1 Jack pine
24 Hemlock-yellow birch
25 Sugar maple-beech-yellow birch
26 Sugar maple-basswood
27 Sugar maple
40 Post oak-blackjack oak
42 Bur Oak
45 Pitch pine
46 Eastern redcedar
52 White oak-black oak-northern red oak
60 Beech-sugar maple
66 Ashe juniper-redberry (Pinchot) juniper
67 Mohrs (shin) oak
68 Mesquite
69 Sand pine
70 Longleaf pine
71 Longleaf pine-scrub oak
72 Southern scrub oak
73 Southern redcedar
74 Cabbage palmetto
75 Shortleaf pine
76 Shortleaf pine-oak
78 Virginia pine-oak
79 Virginia pine
80 Loblolly pine-shortleaf pine
81 Loblolly pine
82 Loblolly pine-hardwood
83 Longleaf pine-slash pine
84 Slash pine
85 Slash pine-hardwood
98 Pond pine
110 Black oak
111 South Florida slash pine
220 Rocky Mountain juniper
239 Pinyon-juniper
240 Arizona cypress
241 Western live oak
242 Mesquite

211 Creosote bush scrub
212 Blackbush
310 Needle-and-thread-blue grama
412 Juniper-pinyon woodland
501 Saltbush-greasewood
502 Grama-galleta
505 Grama-tobosa shrub
508 Creosotebush-tarbush
601 Bluestem prairie
602 Bluestem-prairie sandreed
603 Prairie sandreed-needlegrass
604 Bluestem-grama prairie
605 Sandsage prairie
606 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass
607 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
608 Wheatgrass-grama-needlegrass
609 Wheatgrass-grama
611 Blue grama-buffalo grass
612 Sagebrush-grass
704 Blue grama-western wheatgrass
705 Blue grama-galleta
706 Blue grama-sideoats grama
707 Blue grama-sideoats grama-black grama
709 Bluestem-grama
710 Bluestem prairie
711 Bluestem-sacahuista prairie
714 Grama-bluestem
715 Grama-buffalo grass
717 Little bluestem-Indiangrass-Texas wintergrass
718 Mesquite-grama
719 Mesquite-liveoak-seacoast bluestem
720 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (dunes)
721 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (plains)
722 Sand sagebrush-mixed prairie
727 Mesquite-buffalo grass
728 Mesquite-granjeno-acacia
729 Mesquite
730 Sand shinnery oak
731 Cross timbers-Oklahoma
732 Cross timbers-Texas (little bluestem-post oak)
733 Juniper-oak
734 Mesquite-oak
808 Sand pine scrub
809 Mixed hardwood and pine
810 Longleaf pine-turkey oak hills
811 South Florida flatwoods
812 North Florida flatwoods
814 Cabbage palm flatwoods
816 Cabbage palm hammocks

Devil's-tongue occurs in a variety of desert, grassland, prairie, and woodland communities. It occurs as a community associate and not a dominant species [10]. Brief descriptions of the common dominants and associates are presented below.

Devil's-tongue is commonly found in sandhill prairie communities dominated by big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and prairie sandreed (Calamovilfa longifolia). Other common associates in these communities include Addison's rosette grass (Dichanthelium ovale var. addisonii), goat's rue (Tephrosia virginiana), porcupine grass (Hesperostipa spartea), Muhlenberg's sedge (Carex muehlenbergii), sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes), sand sagebrush (Artemisia filifolia), soapweed yucca (Yucca glauca), and western ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya) [3,27,29,51,70,72].

In shortgrass prairies dominated by blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides), devil's-tongue can be one of the principal forbs [1,2,79]. Eastern prickly pear also occurs in mixed grass prairies dominated by needle-and-thread grass (Hesperostipa comata) and western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii) [28].

In the Texas savanna vegetation type, devil's-tongue can occur with a variety of associates including mesquite (Prosopis spp.), acacias (Acacia spp.), oaks, junipers (Juniperus spp.), bluestems, indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), gramas, buffalo grass, and Texas tussockgrass (Nassella leucotricha) [18].

Devil's-tongue is a common associate in a wide variety of habitat types dominated by longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and sand pine (P. clausa). Overstory associates in these types include turkey oak (Quercus laevis), bluejack oak (Q. incana), and sand live oak (Q. geminata). Understory associates include pineland threeawn (Aristida stricta), dwarf palm (Sabal minor), and Adam's needle (Y. filamentosa) [17,32,40,41,84].

In saw-palmetto (Serenoa repens) prairies, devil's-tongue is commonly found with inkberry (Ilex glabra), wiregrass, broomsedge bluestem (Andropogon virginicus), carpet grass (Axonopus spp.) and sand live oak [22,23].

Devil's-tongue occurs on the drier sites in eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) glades where other associates include post oak (Q. stellata), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), winged elm (Ulmus alata), yaupon (I. vomitoria) [7,8,9,36]. It also occurs in black oak (Q. velutina) savannas in Indiana [14], black oak-eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) dunes in Michigan [62], and turkey oak sandhills in Georgia [56].

In the upper dune zone of the beach vegetation type in Florida, southeastern devil's-tongue commonly occurs as an associate with aloe yucca (Y. aloifolia) and finger rot (Cnidoscolus stimulosus) [67].


SPECIES: Opuntia humifusa
This description provides characteristics that may be relevant to fire ecology, and is not meant for identification. Several florae provide keys for identifying devil's-tongue [10,30,39].

Devil's-tongue is a perennial native mat- or clump-forming cactus usually 3 to 4 inches (7.5-10 cm) tall. It occasionally grows to 12 inches (30 cm) in height in Florida. The succulent stem segments, or pads, are 1.5 to 4 inches (3.8-10 cm) long and 1.6 to 2.4 inches (4-6 cm) wide. Areoles on the pads give rise to 0 to 2 spines that are 1 to 2.4 inches (2.5-6 cm) long. Flowers are solitary, 1 to 1.5 inches (2.5-3.8 cm) in diameter. The fruit is a fleshy berry 1 to 1.6 inches (2.5-4 cm) long. The seeds are flattened, orbicular, and 0.2 inch (4.5 mm) in diameter. The root system is shallow and fibrous [10,30,35,59]. A caudex may develop in persistent stems [20].

Physiology: Devil's-tongue is considered highly drought tolerant [2].

Stem succulent

Devil's-tongue reproduces from seeds, by layering, and sprouting from detached stem segments and the caudex [2,20,76].

Breeding system: Devil's-tongue is monoecious [10].

Pollination: Devil's-tongue is pollinated by insects [10].

Seed production: Throughout much of its distribution, devil's-tongue relies primarily on seeds for reproduction [2]. Flowers and fruits are 1st produced at 2 years of age [25].

Seed dispersal: Seeds of devil's-tongue are primarily spread when the fruits are eaten by birds and a variety of rodents including rabbits, woodrats, prairie-dogs, mice, and ground squirrels. Ground squirrels may cache the seeds, some of which are later consumed. Cached seeds that are not eaten may germinate and produce new plants [2,26].

Seed banking: No further information is available on this topic.

Germination: Germination rate is reported to be low for seeds of Opuntia species [76]. In laboratory tests, it was found that devil's-tongue seeds collected from rabbit fecal scats had a higher germination rate than seeds collected from unconsumed fruits. Seeds collected from the scats required an average germination time of 41 days and had a germination rate of 25%. Seeds collected from non-eaten fruits required 71 days and germinated at a rate of 18% [26].

Seedling establishment/growth: Although the literature reports that devil's-tongue regenerates by seeds [10], information is lacking on the specifics of seedling establishment and growth.

Asexual regeneration: Layering occurs when pads still attached to the parent plant take root into soil. Detached pads also readily root into soil [76]. The pads can disperse by attaching to animals by the spines [2]. Opuntia species can sprout from the caudex when the aboveground portion of the plant is destroyed [20].

Devil's-tongue is a species that can flourish under a great range of conditions. It is found at elevations ranging from sea level to 5,500 feet (1,576 m), will grow well on various types of soils under a wide range of moisture regimes, and can survive extremes of both hot and cold temperatures [10,45].

The moisture regimes in which eastern pricklypear can thrive are quite varied. For example, the cactus occurs in extremely xeric sandstone cedar glades in Kentucky and Tennessee, but also thrives in the saw-palmetto prairies in Florida where the water table is often at or near the ground surface [22,36].

Devil's-tongue is winter hardy, being able to survive on sites where the minimum winter temperatures can drop below 10 oF (-12 oC). The cactus avoids freeze damage by rapidly reducing the water content in cells during cold acclimation [54].

Eastern pricklypear is most commonly found on sandy or gravely soils but can also flourish on organic detritus and silty or loamy soils. It is tolerant of low-nutrient, acid, and alkaline soils [10].

Devil's-tongue is shade intolerant [51] and is generally replaced by other species in advanced stages of succession [10]. The cactus colonizes disturbed sites and may persist through late seral stages of plant succession. It colonizes bare coastal dunes in some areas of the Northeast [77]. On the dunes of southern Lake Michigan, it appears in early seral stages where it invades the beachgrass (Ammophilia breviligulata)-prairie sandreed communities of young dunes. It is found in late seral, shrub-populated dunes on the shores of western Lake Michigan where it persists after the invasion of jack pine and black oak. It dies out as dense tree canopy cover develops [62]. Devil's-tongue is found in "climax" sand sagebrush communities in northeastern Colorado [65].

Devil's-tongue flowers from May to July [10]. Plants in Florida may bloom year-round [87]. Fruits mature 2 to 3 months after flowering and may persist until the following spring [10].


SPECIES: Opuntia humifusa
Fire adaptations: Fire information specific to this species is lacking. Opuntia spp. are adapted to survive low-severity fire by sprouting from the caudex and by layering from pads that were buried or protected in the litter layer [20,75]. Prickly-pear cacti colonize burned areas when off-site seed is transported on-site by animals [78].

Fire regimes: Devil's-tongue grows in plant communities with a wide range of fire frequencies from less than 10 years for many grassland and prairie communities to greater than 1,000 years for some of the eastern mixed-hardwood communities. As of this writing (2005), fires ecology studies are lacking for eastern pricklypear. The following table provides fire return intervals for plant communities and ecosystems where devil's-tongue occurs. Find further fire regime information for the plant communities in which this species may occur by entering the species name in the FEIS home page under "Find Fire Regimes".

Community or Ecosystem Dominant Species Fire Return Interval Range (years)
maple-beech-birch Acer-Fagus-Betula spp. >1,000
sugar maple Acer saccharum >1,000
sugar maple-basswood Acer saccharum-Tilia americana >1,000 [83]
bluestem prairie Andropogon gerardii var. gerardii-Schizachyrium scoparium <10 [52,63]
Nebraska sandhills prairie Andropogon gerardii var. paucipilus-Schizachyrium scoparium <10
bluestem-Sacahuista prairie Andropogon littoralis-Spartina spartinae <10 [63]
basin big sagebrush Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata 12-43 [69]
mountain big sagebrush Artemisia tridentata var. vaseyana 15-40 [6,21,58]
Wyoming big sagebrush Artemisia tridentata var. wyomingensis 10-70 (=40) [82,88]
saltbush-greasewood Atriplex confertifolia-Sarcobatus vermiculatus <35 to <100 [63]
plains grasslands Bouteloua spp. <35 [63,86]
blue grama-needle-and-thread grass-western wheatgrass Bouteloua gracilis-Hesperostipa comata-Pascopyrum smithii <35 [63,68,86]
blue grama-buffalo grass Bouteloua gracilis-Buchloe dactyloides <35 [63,86]
grama-galleta steppe Bouteloua gracilis-Pleuraphis jamesii <35 to <100
blue grama-tobosa prairie Bouteloua gracilis-Pleuraphis mutica <35 to <100
blackbrush Coleogyne ramosissima <35 to <100
Arizona cypress Cupressus arizonica <35 to 200 [63]
beech-sugar maple Fagus spp.-Acer saccharum >1,000 [83]
juniper-oak savanna Juniperus ashei-Quercus virginiana <35
Rocky Mountain juniper Juniperus scopulorum <35 [63]
cedar glades Juniperus virginiana 3-22 [43,63]
creosotebush Larrea tridentata <35 to <100
Ceniza shrub Larrea tridentata-Leucophyllum frutescens-Prosopis glandulosa <35 [63]
wheatgrass plains grasslands Pascopyrum smithii <5-47+ [63,64,86]
pinyon-juniper Pinus-Juniperus spp. <35 [63]
jack pine Pinus banksiana <35 to 200 [31]
shortleaf pine Pinus echinata 2-15
shortleaf pine-oak Pinus echinata-Quercus spp. <10
slash pine Pinus elliottii 3-8
slash pine-hardwood Pinus elliottii-variable <35
sand pine Pinus elliottii var. elliottii 25-45 [83]
South Florida slash pine Pinus elliottii var. densa 1-15 [60,73,83]
Jeffrey pine Pinus jeffreyi 5-30
western white pine* Pinus monticola 50-200 [5]
longleaf-slash pine Pinus palustris-P. elliottii 1-4 [60,83]
longleaf pine-scrub oak Pinus palustris-Quercus spp. 6-10 [83]
pitch pine Pinus rigida 6-25 [19,46]
pocosin Pinus serotina 3-8
loblolly pine Pinus taeda 3-8
loblolly-shortleaf pine Pinus taeda-P. echinata 10 to <35
Virginia pine Pinus virginiana 10 to <35
Virginia pine-oak Pinus virginiana-Quercus spp. 10 to <35 [83]
galleta-threeawn shrubsteppe Pleuraphis jamesii-Aristida purpurea <35 to <100 [63]
mesquite Prosopis glandulosa <35 to <100 [57,63]
mesquite-buffalo grass Prosopis glandulosa-Buchloe dactyloides <35
Texas savanna Prosopis glandulosa var. glandulosa <10 [63]
oak-hickory Quercus-Carya spp. <35 [83]
oak-juniper woodland (Southwest) Quercus-Juniperus spp. <35 to <200 [63]
northeastern oak-pine Quercus-Pinus spp. 10 to <35
southeastern oak-pine Quercus-Pinus spp. <10 [83]
coast live oak Quercus agrifolia 2-75 [42]
white oak-black oak-northern red oak Quercus alba-Q. velutina-Q. rubra <35
bur oak Quercus macrocarpa <10 [83]
oak savanna Quercus macrocarpa/Andropogon gerardii-Schizachyrium scoparium 2-14 [63,83]
shinnery Quercus mohriana <35 [63]
post oak-blackjack oak Quercus stellata-Q. marilandica <10
black oak Quercus velutina <35
live oak Quercus virginiana 10 to<100 [83]
interior live oak Quercus wislizenii <35 [5]
cabbage palmetto-slash pine Sabal palmetto-Pinus elliottii <10 [60,83]
blackland prairie Schizachyrium scoparium-Nassella leucotricha <10
Fayette prairie Schizachyrium scoparium-Buchloe dactyloides <10 [83]
little bluestem-grama prairie Schizachyrium scoparium-Bouteloua spp. <35 [63]
*fire return interval varies widely; trends in variation are noted in the species review

Surface rhizome/chamaephytic root crown in organic mantle or on soil surface
Caudex/herbaceous root crown, growing points in soil
Ground residual colonizer (on-site, initial community)
Initial off-site colonizer (off-site, initial community)
Secondary colonizer (on-site or off-site seed sources)


SPECIES: Opuntia humifusa
Moderate- or low-severity fires can kill the aboveground parts of Opuntia spp. Some pads may survive low- to moderate-severity fires when they are covered by litter or sheltered within a clump of stems. High-severity fire usually kills the entire plant [11].

No additional information is available on this topic.

Devil's-tongue establishes from singed or unburned pads after fire [11]. It probably also establishes from on- and off-site seed sources and pads transported onto burns from off-site sources [13]; however, information on postfire seedling establishment of devil's-tongue and postfire pad transport is lacking (as of 2005).

A spring fire in a sand lovegrass-little bluestem-prairie sandreed community in Illinois destroyed most of the existing pads of devil's-tongue. Sampling showed good regrowth of the cactus 3 months after fire. However, mortality of the new plants was high in the next 2 years following the burn. Prickly-pear biomass was 34 g/m 3 months after fire, 26 g/m 1 year after fire, and 10 g/m 2 years after fire [3]. In studies of other Opuntia spp., it was found that many plants that sprout following fire are attacked by insects that spread bacterial and fungal infections which subsequently kill the new stems [20].

No additional information is available on this topic.

Repeated fires can greatly reduce populations of small Opuntia spp. like devil's-tongue. High fire frequency may eliminate pricklypears from a site for many years until new plants reestablish from seeds or pads carried onto the site by birds or mammals [11].


SPECIES: Opuntia humifusa
Roots, stems, fruits, and seeds of devil's-tongue may be eaten by a variety of birds and animals [24,55]. Devil's-tongue is one of the most important foods of the prairie pocket mouse [16]. Gopher tortoises will feed on the stems, fruits and seeds, but devil's-tongue does not constitute a large percentage of their diet [15]. White-tailed deer in North Carolina feed on devil's-tongue fruits in the fall and winter [44]. The ornate box turtle, endangered in Wisconsin, feeds on the stems and fruits [24].

The pads of Opuntia spp. can be used as emergency livestock forage after the spines have been singed off [48].

Palatability/nutritional value: Devil's-tongue is low in nutritional value for livestock [48]. The nutritional value of fresh, immature devil's-tongue stems in the United States is as follows [61]:

Percent composition

Percent digestible protein

ash 2.6 cattle 0.5
crude fiber 1.2 horses 0.4
protein 0.9 domestic sheep 0.5
    domestic rabbits 0.5

Cover value: Snakes and lizards hide under the pads to avoid the sun. Birds, including northern bobwhites, nest in pricklypear cacti, using the protection offered by the spines [24,47].

Devil's-tongue has been used in restoration projects, although the literature does not indicate extensive use for this purpose. Seedlings were successfully established in a reclamation project on a sand and gravel borrow-pit in Ohio [25].

Opuntia seeds germinate most readily when they are fresh. Dried seeds require scarification to induce germination [4]. Devil's-tongue is easily established from stem cuttings buried to approximately three-fifths of their length [76], and can be artificially propagated using tissue culture [85].

Humans eat the stems, fruits, and seeds of devil's-tongue. The stems are usually singed to remove the spines and are then roasted and peeled or deep-fried. Pads can be dried for later use. Fruits are eaten fresh or dried and can be used for jelly or syrup. Seeds can be roasted and ground into flour [33]. Native Americans used the mucilaginous stem sap as a wound dressing [38].

Opuntia spp. may increase in abundance during droughty periods because of a reduction in other plant species that are not as drought tolerant. Also, dry conditions are not as favorable for some of the insects that can be the most damaging to pricklypears. As moisture levels increase in years following drought, insect damage to pricklypears can be high, and native grasses and forbs begin to reestablish on the site near clumps of pricklypear where the clumps create a favorable microsite for seed germination [2].

There is some indication that Opuntia spp. may increase in response to heavy grazing. However, researchers are not sure if pricklypear populations respond to a reduction of the preferred forage species, or if the grazing animals simply provide for improved spread and establishment of the cacti by transporting the pads on their bodies [13].

Opuntia spp. can be problematic in pastures grazed by domestic sheep and goats. The spines can cause bacterial infection in the mouth and intestinal tract, and the seeds can cause rumen impaction [80].

Devil's-tongue is susceptible to damage by the cactus bug, a cochineal scale, and several species of cactus borers [26].


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