I had a few goals for my second hike on the Billy Goat A trail:
- find spatterdock and get better pictures
- find orangegrass and get better pictures
- get better pictures of purple-headed sneezeweed and seedbox
So it came as a surprise and delight to find this before finding any of the above.
This is Opuntia humifusa, aka eastern prickly pear, the only cactus to grow wild in the state of Maryland, where it’s mostly a plant of the coastal plain. But that’s one of the neat things about the Potomac Gorge: you find things there that aren’t usually found in the Piedmont. Also, strangely, there are records for this plant in Washington County, in the ridge and valley physiographic province.
This species is fairly well distributed through the mid-Atlantic, the South, and the Midwest. It’s listed as endangered in Massachusetts, exploitably vulnerable in New York, special concern in Connecticut, and rare in Pennsylvania.
Being a cactus, it of course is going to like growing on thin, sandy, rocky, well-drained soils, and prefers full sun as well. The Illinois Wildflowers site says that one of the species’ biggest threats is invasion by woody vegetation (presumably because of shading). I found this stand in a somewhat open area growing amid scrub pine (Pinus virginiana) and shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum), in a surprising amount of shade. This is a good size specimen (a few feet across). I hope it can hang on a few more years.
Eastern prickly pear is also known as devil’s tongue, low prickly pear, and smooth prickly pear. Don’t let that last name fool you: it may look more or less smooth, but it has hair-fine spines that can cause a lot of pain.
As in Death Valley, I was there at the wrong time to see it bloom. You can see the shriveled flowers in the first picture. I did have a look ’round for other plants, but as there are signs all over Billy Goat A asking people to stay on the trails, I didn’t go far. (Bear Island is under tremendous stress from overuse.)
Oh well. It’s something to look forward to next summer.