Prickly Pear – Le figuier de Barbarie
Native to the Americas. Introduced into Europe by the Spanish colonists on their return from the Americas. They now grow all over the Mediterranean region. Prickly Pears have flat rounded pads (Cladodes). They are armed with two kinds of spines, large smooth fixed spines, and small hairy prickles called ‘glochids’. When a pad is touched, the ‘glochids’ detach themselves and penetrate the skin. They are very easy to propagate. Just insert a pad into the soil and a new Prickly Pear will establish itself. They belong to the Cucumber Family, Cucurbitaceae.
Prickly Pears were introduced into Australia where they became so invasive, they almost caused an environmental disaster. The farming community thought that the Prickly Pear would form a natural, agricultural fencing. It started with the introduction in 1788 of Prickly Pears from Brazil into Sydney, 50 years later the plants were brought to a farmer’s garden. His wife gave out cuttings to friends and that was the start of it. This plant became so invasive that it transformed 260,000 km² of farming land into an impenetrable jungle of Prickly Pears, in places 6.1 m high. It was referred to as ‘the green hell’. In 1919 the Federal Government established the ‘Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board’ to eradicate the plant. They first tried to remove them mechanically, that failed, then they used pesticides, again that failed. As a last resort, in 1925, they introduced a moth ‘Cactoblastis cactorum’ from S. America. The food for the larvae of this moth is the Prickly Pear. It was so successful that it almost wiped out the existing Prickly Pear population in Australia.
The ‘Dactylopius coccus’, a scale insect, feeds itself on the moisture and nutrients of the sap of the Prickly Pear. The insect produces carminic acid. This carminic acid is extracted from the insect’s body and eggs to make the red dye ‘cochineal’. Cochineal is used in red food colouring and cosmetics. It was widely used by the Aztec and Maya people. Produced almost exclusively in Oaxaca, Mexico, cochineal became Mexico’s second most important export after silver. Cochineal was consumed throughout Europe and was so highly valued that its price was often quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges. Nowadays the highest production of cochineal is in Peru, Canary Islands and Chile.
The first time I ate the Cactus fruit was on the Greek island of Anti Paxos when a local boy came on the beach selling cleaned Cactus fruit. Rather refreshing. The fruit has to be peeled very carefully to remove the spines and hairy prickles on the outer skin.
Bibliography: Opuntia – Wikipedia