Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The ubiquitous prickly pear

The dominant cactus at medium-level to high desert locales, at least here in central Arizona, the Englemann prickly pear greens these hillsides in the desert counry between I-17 and Crown King up in the Bradshaws. They grow here in Prescott, too, though not in such numbers. In fact, I have read that certain opuntia, which are frost tolerant, are found in almost every state in the USA and as far north as mid-British Columbia. Imagine: the prickly pear is considered an endangered species in New York state (Aussies, take note.).

Take a close look at that spiny pad. It should be easy to handle a pad just by avoiding the those long mean spikes, right? Wrong! Almost any place your fingers might land, they will pick up nasty little hairlike glochids that easily penetrate the skin. I keep a set of kitchen tongs among my gardening tools just for handling prickly pear and other cactus.

And yet local critters do munch out on thr nopals (pads). Probably iron-stomached javelina. However, what better way to introduce prickly pear as a popular foodstuff, at least in Mexico, Central and South America as well as parts of the southwest.

Above, you can see the first apperance of new little pads (nopalitos). These are eaten as a vegetable and you will find them sold fresh or canned in Mexican food marts. The pads have grow a bit on the plant below.

Prickly pear fruit are also a staple in indigeneous diets. Obviously, it takes a flower to make a fruit. The flower buds (above) site atop the plant part that will eventually become the fruit or tuna. This year, my little prickly pear plant blossomed nicely (below).

Flowers on our everyday prickly pear will differ. Most of the blossoms in my neighborhood are bright yellow, though elsewhere, the flowers may be of a peach color.

Above, spent blossoms; below, green tunas. Note that the tunas also feature a good supply of spikes.

Here, a good ripe crop just up the street from my house. Personally, I have found the taste of prickly pear tunas to be rather insipid and too sweet the few times I have tried to make popular concoctions. However, once they tasted terrific: my LH and I had foolishly climbed Thumb Butte on a hot day without carrying water. Up near the top, we came across a plant with many fruit; fortunately, the LH had two pocket knives. With one, he impaled a tuna; with the other, he peeled it carefully to avoid spines and glochids. The juice was remarkably refreshing on that occasion.

The other prickly pear that grows wild near (but not in) Prescott is the beaver tail. This cactus lacks the long spines; the flowers are a brilliant fuschia. According to Wikipedia, there are over 200 species of prickly pear in the western hemisphere; there were several exotics over at Watters (below) when I visited the other day.


Antipodean Curmudgeon said...

The species of prickley pear that Aussie has been lumbered with is unknown to me. Whatever it is, it really loves our conditions. Bush Queensland is replete with the buggers and we've plenty in W.A.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the post and the pictures.

TomboCheck said...

A thorough post of the local plant life. Gotta love it! :)

Warren said...

excellent series, I really enjoy prickly pear flowers every year.

Its amazing how fast these plants will grow and how heavy the pads can get when trimming an overgrown one in the yard. I'm a big fan of using stout barbeque tongs when trimming one.

Anonymous said...

They are yummy to eat, especially prickly-pear jam. I bought my first jar at the Desert Botanical Gardens down in the Valley of the Sun (near Scottsdale).

~Anon in AV.

Granny J said...

bro -- I certainly recall your #2 son's visit to the USA. One thing he really wanted to see was prickly pear growing in its native heath, where no one worried about its existence!

steve -- I do thank you; a lot different from Bavaria.

tombo -- I've got others up my sleeves.

warren - the one problem with prickly pear is that they don't leave those splendid cactus bones behind when they die...

anon av -- they must use a lot of lime juice to cut all that sweetness!

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