Opuntia ficus-indica

The Prickly Pear

by Virginia Hayes

Humans have been eating parts of this plant for about 12,000 years and began cultivating it about 9,000 years ago. It has been moved around the world in so many directions, its exact origins are somewhat obscure. Most surely it originated somewhere in Mexico, but it diffused throughout South America and Columbus surely took it home with him on his first visit. It spread quickly from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean in the 1400s to 1500s. It is the most economically important cactus and is known as the prickly pear, or Opuntia ficus-indica.

The name prickly pear refers to the fruits (also known as tunas in Spanish-speaking cultures), which are the main edible crop. They are roughly the size of a pear, but don’t have the same sinuous curves. Most will be yellow to red or purplish-red when ripe, but nearly white, green, or even brown fruits are also known. The flesh may be any shade as well, but most available here are red or purple inside. Sweet and juicy, they are full of tiny crunchy seeds. Eat them raw with or without a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, make them into jam, or even a gummy candy or into milkshakes. Before eating, scrape off the few spines and prickles on their skin with a knife or turn fruits over a flame to char them.

The fruits are only part of the story, though. Young pads — actually flattened stems known as nopales — are eaten raw or stirred into stews, egg dishes, or boiled quickly to make a salad with onions, cilantro, and chiles. Livestock have been fed on prickly pear pads for centuries. Luther Burbank worked for years to perfect a truly spineless variety just for this purpose. The plant is easily propagated by rooting pads and one of the other uses for this ancient crop is as a living fence. There are some reputed medicinal uses for the sap: treating burns, wounds, and blood sugar imbalances; as a mosquito retardant; to stiffen cloth; as an additive for soaps, candles, whitewash, and mortar. How’s that for an all-purpose plant?

February Tips

  1. Cut back fuchsias: In-ground plants can be cut back by half, and potted ones even more. Feed with a balanced organic fertilizer and stand back.
  2. Shy rains and low humidity mean regular irrigation is still needed. Monitor soil moisture and water as necessary.
  3. Check mulch levels and renew to a depth of 4-6 inches.
  4. Plant greens for a quick harvest: Arugula, beet greens, leaf lettuces, spinach, and cress are all ready to start picking in just 20-45 days.

Virginia, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to .

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