|Photo by Maureen Gilmer of the Pin Cushion cactus|
I love cactus. They are cool looking and beautiful in the right spot of a well planned landscape. I DO NOT like handling them however. Even with gloves and tongs, I still find myself getting stuck. However, getting stuck would be the least of my concerns as I was digging up some pin cushion cactus pads at my friend's house. Have you ever watched sea coral blow out organic material into the water? If you haven't, it looks like a white cloud of particles. Here is where things took a turn for the worse for me. I was hot and sweating, wearing my gloves with tongs in hand. I had a cardboard box to put the clippings. As I head over to the large pin cushion cactus, I look at where I can trim off a couple pads. I begin pulling off several pads and a "cloud" of debris is shot into the air and my eyes begin to water and burn. The pain is excrutiating and for over a week, I felt something in my eye!!! I went to see my doctor who smiled and flushed my eye out with a solution. She had told me that this was a common thing that happens to gardeners in the desert southwest. It was during this conversation that we both had to refresh our memories. What was that thing that the cactus had on it? It started with the letter "g".....and then...."glaaa"...."glochids" came out. Some cactus are notorious for this nasty defense. I still love the plant, but next time I'll be sure to wear eye glasses. Some of them have cute names like "Funny Bunny Ears" or "Pin Cushion". They're all a variety of Opuntia and there is nothing cute about getting glochids on your skin or in your eyes. Wear long sleeved shirts to cover your arms. The particles are so small that they will attach easily onto your body....especially if you are sweating.
So what are glochids? Glochids are very sharp specialized short hair like spines, they are barbed at the tip, often occurring in tufts and deciduous; They are a defining characteristic, only of the subfamily, Opuntioideae, of the family Cactaceae. Not present on other cactus genera.
The issues? Problems of contact dermatitis are common wherever the fruits of prickly pear cactus are gathered. A cousin of the cholla, this plant also has large sharp spines, but it's the secondary spines, called glochids, that are the banes of workers' existence. Tiny and hair-like, they appear to be harmless fuzz, but they are highly irritating to the skin. Glochids can break off, leaving the tip embedded in your skin. This causes a rash and, in more extreme cases, infections.
Experts suggest using a magnifying glass and tweezers to remove them promptly, one by one, taking care not to cause further breakage. They appear as bright yellow dots on the cactus pad and look harmless....even attractive. Glochids are detachable and break away very easily and quickly become embedded in skin or clothing, they are strongly hurtful. Ohhh the pain. I won't make that mistake again. Funny Bunny Ears my....