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Blooming Now: The Valley’s Own Native Cactus

Two species of prickly pear cactus have adapted to thrive along the Hudson River.

by Dalvin Aboagye
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With all the emphasis on native plants these days, you’d be forgiven for shaking your head when stumbling across a cactus on a local hike, assuming it’s not native. But here’s a surprise: two types of seemingly desert-ready cactus are adapted to thrive in the Hudson Valley. Parts of the region host two distinct species of prickly pear, the only cacti native to New York State.

Opuntia humifusa in bloom atop Sugarloaf Hill in the Hudson Highlands of New York State. (Photo: Julian Colton / Wikipedia)

The green spiked pads of these prickly pears, accented with the bright yellow flowers that spring forth in early summer, looks like something you’d see in the arid, rocky landscapes of the Southwest. Instead, you can find them in the Hudson Highlands, Sugarloaf Hill, and other sections along the river. 

“Besides being a beautiful plant — especially when it flowers, it’s quite striking — it’s also very beneficial,” says Nava Tabak, a botanist and director of Climate, Science and Stewardship at Scenic Hudson. Pollinators like bees and possibly hummingbirds feed on the nectar of the prickly pear flowers, while a variety of small mammals and likely the Eastern box turtle feast on the fruits, she explains. 

Prickly pear with buds. (Photo: Dan Smith/ Scenic Hudson)

New York is actually home to two distinct species of cacti within the Optunia genus: Opuntia humifusa and Opuntia cespitosa — the latter of which was only recently recognized as a separate species within the state. In fact, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two species except when they’re in bloom — the flowers of the Optunia cespitosa have a red or orange center.

“They’re fairly separated, although most of the Opuntia cespitosa is mainly south west of Kingston in more limestone areas. The other one, the humifusa, is along the Hudson River from Columbia County all the way down to Long Island,” says Steve Young, a botanist at the New York Natural Heritage Program. Several dozen species of the Opuntia (prickly pear) cactus genus grow through much of the country, from the South, up along the East Coast, and even all the way up to parts of New England. 

Cultivar prickly pear in Cottekill, N.Y. (Photo: Jo-Anne Asuncion / Scenic Hudson)

Their thick water-filled stems and spines put them in line with their desert cousins, although the prickly pears are especially resistant to frigid Northeast winters thanks to a special antifreeze-like chemical in their cells. Generally speaking, Opuntia cespitosa tends to be the rarer of the two species in New York, but the growth range of one often overlaps with the other, Tabak says. Confusingly, both species are referred to as prickly pear. Optunia humifusa is also called Eastern prickly pear or devil’s-tongue.

The more temperate coastal environment created by the oceanic warmth carried up the Hudson make for hospitable conditions for prickly pear to thrive. But the jury is out on whether the warming temperatures we’re experiencing due to climate change will be a boom or bust for the cactus, since it favors rocky, dry soil the most. 

Prickly pear mojito. (Photo: Jo-Anne Asuncion / Scenic Hudson)

“We don’t expect that all of a sudden the state will be like Arizona, where there are a lot of dry areas,” Tabak says. “In fact, we’re expecting our moisture levels to continue to be high with climate change. So I would expect it might creep up kind of along the Hudson if there’s rocky habitat. The thing is, there’s generally less rocky shorelines as you go north along the Hudson.”

You can grow Eastern prickly pear cultivars in your yard or in a planter, and the pears (fascinatingly, sometimes also called prickly pear “tunas”) are edible. The red fruits carry a reserved sweetness that can be made into jams, desserts, or even cocktails with the right preparation. (Beacon’s Hudson Valley Brewery has even been known to infuse prickly pear into its beer, although the pears weren’t necessarily local.)

These cacti are not common in the Hudson Valley, and as with any uncommon plant, wild harvesting can harm the populations and is not recommended. If you have a cultivated prickly pear in your garden, just be sure to wear thick gloves — one touch and you’ll discover exactly where the “devil” in the devil’s-tongue name comes from.

More in this series

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The Valley may not host showy fields of tulips or bluebonnets. Yet for the hikers, painters, students, explorers, photographers and...
Like many, Millbrook resident Liselotte Vince earned her green thumb as a kid years ago, when beauty was the big...
A decade ago, Bryan Meador was an art student in New York City alienated by too much concrete. He felt...

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Hudson Valley Viewfinder is a collaborative, community digital magazine sharing what inspires us about the beautiful Hudson Valley. We publish original stories and multimedia content about all things sustainable in the region along the Hudson River — including agriculture, science, wildlife, outdoor recreation, green transportation, environmental justice, and more.

Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

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Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

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We’re always looking for ideas around our main topic areas of Climate Solutions, Land + Air + Water, Plants + Animals, History + Culture, Outdoors, and Community.
  • Journalists and writers who have deep familiarity with New York and the Hudson Valley, we’d love to have you contribute! Please do introduce yourself by email, sharing writing samples and any relevant pitches you may have.
  • Photographers and videographers, we’d love to hear from you and see what you do. Please send along a portfolio with images or footage that showcases your best and/or most relevant work, with an emphasis on anything captured outdoors. 
  • Illustrators, we commission artwork on the regular. Drop us a note with some of the beauty you’ve created.
  • Media Partners & Social Media Influencers, we welcome opportunities to team up on series and campaigns. Reach out with any background about yourselves and your ideas.
  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
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  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
  • Writers, photographers, and creatives, if you have an idea for a series or content campaign that might be a good fit, drop us a line!

Businesses, please note that as a nonprofit, Scenic Hudson is restricted from advertising or promoting for-profit companies, through Viewfinder or other outlets. While we understand content managers may wish to alert us to your company’s role in a relevant topic, we are unable to add links to businesses to our stories.

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