Where the fine sands of old Illinois dunes and sand fields in the river regions bake under the summer sunshine, the silken yellow petals of prickly-pear cacti bloom briefly and are done. They are plants of the sand, natives of that sparse and typical vegetation which is able to exist here. Long traveling roots serve to hold the sands in place and draw up moisture, and the structure of the plant makes it possible for it to survive in an exacting habitat.
Opuntia rafinesquii Engelm.
June - July Sands.
A cactus is well suited to far more arid regions than this. The plant has no leaves to wilt in the heat. Instead, the stems are enlarged as fleshy pads in which much water is contained. True leaves come forth on the young plants and appear as tiny sprouts which fall off almost at once. The clusters of thorns and bristles on the cactus developed from leaf buds which, through a response to dryness, became thorns. The broad fleshy green stems or "pads" of the prickly-pear carry on the leaves' function of manufacturing food.
In winter the cactus plants look shrunken and dead, but by June the shriveled old plants take on new life. Buds jut from the top curve of the pads, beautiful, sculptured, conical buds whose lower receptacle is studded with prickles. The flowers open into one of the most beautiful of all blossoms, a shining, shimmering, butter-yellow, silken flower with an orange-brown patch at the base of each petal. In the center is the quivering, lightly set mass of bright yellow stamens. The fruits are the ripened receptacles of the flowers, turned dull red and edible in late summer. Indians long ago learned how to pick the prickly-pears and rub off the stinging hairs and thorns before eating the fruit.