Tips For Dealing With Prickly Western Flora

Knowing how to deal with prickly western flora will save you trips to the family physician. If you are the type of person who likes spending time in the great outdoors, the following article will help you deal with the less friendly flora.

My ordeal

Sweat leaked from my brow like a rusty faucet. I felt flushed, hot, and nauseous. I glanced at the clock. My group of rowdy fifth-graders would soon be returning from lunch. I tried to stand, but the pain in my right knee was excruciating. Something was wrong. I made a second attempt, and using an old five-iron I kept behind my desk, I made it to my feet and hobbled down to the nurse. “Your temp is 101°F, and your pulse is racing,” the nurse said. “I’ll call and get you a sub, but you need to get home. You have the flu.”

“It’s not the flu,” I reasoned. “Something is wrong with my right knee.” That’s when things worsened. We couldn’t get my loose-fitting Dockers over my knee. The nurse had to cut my pants away. What we found wasn’t good. My knee was, obviously, very swollen, beet-red, and hot.


In addition, we noticed a couple of pockets oozing yellow pus. He was stumped, but I knew exactly what was wrong. A few weeks earlier, while slinking across the prairie in search of pronghorn, my knee found its way into a patch of plains prickly pear (Opuntia macrorhiza) cactus. Several of the inch-long spines stabbed my flesh.

Other than the familiar pain, I didn’t think much of it at the time. I remembered halting my inch-by-inch crawl, jerking out the exposed needles, and then moving forward. In the days following, I felt more irritation in and around my knee than normal. I guess I should have paid the spines a little more mind.

Hours later, I was sitting in the doc’s office getting shots and a prescription for horse-pill-sized antibiotics. My doctor, before sending me on my way, said, “John, you need to pay close attention to the cactus on the prairie. In this case, it caused a very severe infection. If you’d waited much longer, this would have become very serious.”

Since then, I’ve been making it a point to pay very close attention to the cactus I encounter while hunting the western landscape and have since picked the brains of several doctors to get their recommended tips and tactics for removing cactus needles. How cactus spines are removed depends greatly on the particular species of cactus embedded in your skin, so let’s review some common varieties.

The prickly culprits

Western Prickly Pear

western prickly pear
Western prickly pear

The Western Prickly Pear (Opuntia Macrorhiza) is one of the most widespread prickly pears in the U.S., the western prickly pear, sports greenish pads with a bluish hue. They typically form in low, widespread clumps often partially covered by prairie vegetation (sage, long grass, and the like), which makes this species a common prairie stabber.

Depending on geographic location, the prickly pear will showcase yellow or orange flowers with red centers. Spine lengths are typically 1-6 inches. Prickly pear spines are long and thick. They’re difficult to break, which makes tweezer removal an excellent option.

How to deal with it

When using tweezers to remove a cactus spine, always start by grabbing the spine toward the top. You don’t want to place the tweezers at the point where the cactus enters the skin. Should the tweezers break the spine, you’ll want to have more spine to work with. Breaking it off at the skin will push the spine deeper into the flesh and could cause infection. Once the spine is out, treat the area with an alcohol pad.

Hedgehog Cactus

hedgehog cactus
Hedgehog cactus

The hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus viridiflorus) is a typically globe-shaped or cylindrical cactus and stands up to 13 inches tall. They grow as single stems, but can also form clusters of up to a dozen plants. The spines are very short, often red or orange in color, and will break off in clusters in the skin. Hedgehog cactus spines are brittle when compared to the western prickly pear, making tweezer removal difficult.

How to deal with it

When dealing with any type of small cactus spine, especially those that break off in small clusters, the key is not snapping the spines off in the skin. Duct tape can work, but isn’t the best option as it will often, when pushed on the skin, break the spines.

The best bet is covering the area in Elmer’s Glue and waiting five or 10 minutes for the glue to dry. Once dry, peel the glue off slowly, and the attached spines should come out. Repeat the process as many times as necessary, and be sure to clean the area with alcohol pads when finished. Infection is less likely with these small, fibrous spines, so don’t be as worried if you break a few of them off. Typically,

Plains Prickly Pear

plains prickly pear
Plains prickly pear

The Plains Prickly Pear (Opuntia polyacantha) cactus grows in low-spreading clusters, the plains prickly pear is the most widespread cactus in the U.S., ranging from west Texas to the Pacific Coast and north into Canada.

This cactus can appear with wrinkled pads—pads that almost look dead—as well as oval greenish-yellow pads. Spines vary greatly in length. This prairie nuisance can be cloaked with yellow or pink flowers, and will put longer (up to 3-inch), thinner, and light-colored spines into the skin. Additionally, it will also put countless shorter, darker-colored spines into the body.

How to deal with it

Use tweezers in combination with Elmer’s Glue to extract embedded spines.

Watch for the symptoms

Should an area become infected (red, swollen, a lesion-leaking pus, hot to the touch), medical attention should be sought immediately. It’s also not uncommon, due to the infection, to feel nauseous and experience an increased heart rate.

After my experience in the field, I now understand how important it is to deal with skin-embedded cactus spines promptly. I hope you’ll use care and caution next time you have a prickly encounter of your own

Get yourself a cactus kit

get yoursefl a cactus kit

No matter where my hunting ventures take me, a first-aid kit is always riding shotgun in my pack. When hunting cactus-dappled landscapes, I always carry the following items.

Tweezers: A good pair of needle-point-sharp tweezers are a must. Many brands will work, but I’ve had great success with Trim-brand tweezers featuring slanted tips.

Elmer’s glue: I always carry a bottle in my pack and a spare in my truck.

Duct tape: I’ve had success with duct tape to remove those last few spines the glue left behind. I keep a small roll in my pack and a big roll in my truck.

Alcohol pads: These can be picked up in bulk at Walmart or any pharmacy. Alcohol pads are great for cleaning and disinfecting.

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How about some protective cactus gear?

Protective cactus gear isn’t expensive, but absolutely necessary. The following items are staples for pain prevention on the plains, and the poking and prodding that will follow if a spine buries deep.

Leather gloves: Purchase a heavy-duty pair of leather gloves (the thicker, the better) from your local farm- or ranch-supply store. I personally prefer those with padded palms. This extra padding prevents small spines from penetrating, and will prevent larger spines from being driven too deep.

Knee Pads: The ones that come with your pricy camo pants aren’t enough. Cactus spines will push through these like they’re butter. Your best bet is a pair that features a full plastic outer and a padded inner like the ones made by Alta Industries. The plastic prevents spines from penetrating and the padded inner keeps you comfortable. Those sporting a not too soft gel outer work great as well, and are a tad quieter when crawling across arid landscapes, which is a benefit if you’re hunting big game.

Snake boots: Snake boots not only thwart the fangs of nasty rattlesnakes, but will also keep spines from shooting into your foot, ankle and lower leg.

Always keep an eye on your surroundings

It might sound obvious, but the best way to avoid cactus is to pay attention. Since my doctor’s office visit more than five years ago, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been poked. Cactus can be very difficult to see, so when walking, slow down. I often stop and check the area around my feet and scan the area out in front of me.

When crawling on hands and knees, remember to occasionally cast your gaze downward to see what you’re about to put your hands and knees in. Lastly, before embarking on a trip to a foreign landscape, take time to research the type of cactus you’ll encounter. Study pictures of the plants, and familiarize yourself with how each species looks.

Hopefully, after reading this article, your chances of being spiked, pricked or poked will decrease considerably and you will take all the precautionary measures to avoid ending up in my shoes and pay a visit to your doctor.

Article submitted by John A. Barrett.

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