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Prickly plants in Ocracoke’s sand

Smilax in winter. Photo taken at Springer’s Point, Ocracoke, by Ken Moore

By Pat Garber

One day this winter, while searching for cold-stunned sea turtles on the Ocracoke beach, I brushed against the spines of a prickly pear cactus, clambered through a huge mat of scratchy catbrier and greenbrier and had to dig a sand spur out from between the pads of my dog’s foot.

The thought of going for a walk at the Ocracoke beach is likely to invoke a desire to put on shorts and toss off your shoes, wriggling your toes in the sand. You also might want to bring your dog along for a frolic. It may come as a shock, though, as you stroll along, to feel a sharp pain in your ankle or foot and see your dog digging at her foot and whimpering.

The sandy soil of Ocracoke provides habitat for several species that make you go “ouch!”  Sand drains quickly, so our beaches provide a habitat not too different from the dry deserts of the West where cacti and other spiny plants thrive. Sand spurs, prickly pears, yuccas and smilax, or catbrier, are found here.  Painful as they may be, they play a major role in stabilizing our dunes and shoreline and provide food for wildlife.

Sand dune sand bur (or spur) courtesy of the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Cenchrus spinifex–coastal or common sand spurs–are a kind of perennial grass that can grow from five to 30 inches high.  The scientific name means spiny millet. They are barely noticeable until one steps on one of the seed pods, encased in a thorny armor. These pods, which help protect the seeds and, by attaching themselves to animals, spread the seeds, can be quite painful.  They can cling to animal hair and have been known to harm the fledglings of terns and skimmers. They provide a great service, however, by holding the sand together and preventing erosion.

Sand spurs have been used as a food source by some human cultures. They can be ground into a highly nutritious flour and baked, and it is said that the seeds are good in porridge. Separating the seeds from the spiny pod, however, can be a timely and painful chore.

Along with sand spurs, two species of prickly pear cactus live on the Outer Banks–Opuntia pusilla and Opuntia humifusa. They thrive in full sun and well drained sand.

A blooming prickly pear cactus. Photo: C. Leinbach

Prickly pears have flattened stems which are formed of segments.  They have two types of prickles: long, visible spines and “glochids,” which are smaller, barbed, hair-like spikes that are hard to see and just as hard to remove from skin. As with sand spurs, their spines often attach to passing animals and people, helping to spread them and extend their territory. The spines also protect the fruit from being eaten by animals.

The cacti bloom in late spring, producing yellow flowers, some with red centers. Native pollinators and honeybees love the nectar of the flowers, which they help pollinate. The petals can be added to salads.

As the season progresses red or purple fruit develops. Box turtles love to munch on the fruit, and they are also edible for humans.  Prickly pears are useful as both vegetables (pads, or nopales) and fruit (tunas.)  Both require heavy gloves to harvest and prepare. The nopales can be grilled or boiled and served as a side dish.

The tunas are filled with seeds, which must be removed, but once that is accomplished, they make a sweet snack or a great jelly. Because they are made up mostly of water, they can be used as such when needed, and have been known to save the lives of more than one hiker stranded in a dry desert. 

Aloe yucca also known as Spanish Bayonet. Photo taken at Springer’s Point, Ocracoke. P. Vankevich

Another plant to be careful of is aloe yucca (Yucca aloifolia), also known as the Spanish Bayonet.   It is a shrub-sized plant in the lily family, related to the Joshua trees of California, with rosettes of tough, evergreen sword-shaped leaves and tall spires of white flowers.

The pointed leaves can deliver a sharp jab if you brush against one. They have a deep root system, which aids in holding sand in place, and they are great pollinator plants, attracting night-flying moths and birds.

Their flowers are edible, and the buds are delicious when sautéed with butter. Native Americans pounded the roots and mixed them with tallow to make a salve for skin sores and other ailments. They used the sharp points as sewing needles and twisted the fibers to make string or rope. The Cherokees, I have been told, threw the pounded root flour into the water to intoxicate fish so that they could be caught.

The berries of the smilax plant Berries are delicious raw or cooked into a jam or jelly. Photo by Ken Moore

Quite common on Ocracoke are several species of smilax–catbriers and greenbriers, also in the lily family. They are barbed vines which produce clusters of tiny flowers in the spring–each flower a perfect, six-petal lily. They later produce blue-black berries popular with birds.

Leaves vary by species and may be lance, heart shaped or oblong, shiny and leathery. Many have sharp thorns. Smilax plants sprawl across the sand and interconnect with other plants of the island, forming a canopy which is incredible habitat for birds and other animals, but can be difficult for humans to maneuver through.

All parts of the smilax plants are tasty and nutritious, and a good source of several vitamins and minerals.  Its tubers, stems, leaves and berries can be used in various recipes.  The young shoots are excellent eaten raw or as you would asparagus.

Berries are delicious raw or cooked into a jam or jelly. Roots can be ground and used like flour–boiled, stewed or roasted as a vegetable side dish, or used to thicken soups.

Smilax has potential uses for treating dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and clinical trials indicate it may have a range of other medical uses as a natural remedy. The roots of a Mexican species are ground and used to make the medicinal Sarsaparilla or as an addition to flavor root beer. 

While you may not want to step on or brush against them, Ocracoke’s prickly plants form an important and useful part of the ecosystem and good, healthy eating as well.

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