Shawnee News-Star Gardening Article,  June 6th 2018 Becky Emerson Carlberg You may call them the Prickly Pear, paddle or beaver tail cactus, devil's tongue or as it is known in Mexico, Nopales. Formerly recognized as 'Opuntia compressa', the prickly pear has been renamed 'Opuntia humifusa' in reference to humus, Greek for soil, and fuses which means […]

Shawnee News-Star Gardening Article,  June 6th 2018

Prickly Pear

Becky Emerson Carlberg

You may call them the Prickly Pear, paddle or beaver tail cactus, devil's tongue or as it is known in Mexico, Nopales. Formerly recognized as 'Opuntia compressa', the prickly pear has been renamed 'Opuntia humifusa' in reference to humus, Greek for soil, and fuses which means spread out. Should be 'Opuntia aquafullia' because the pads contain 90-95% water and fruits hold 80-87% liquid.   Good to know when stranded in a desert if you have the presence of mind to remove the hairs and spines that protect the pads.   There are those that recommend burning the spines off, but others say make shallow cuts with a paring knife to assure the barbs are gone.   Always use tongs or thick leather gloves when holding the pad.

If you happen to have a barbeque grill while out there in the Mojave, fire it up.   Put some olive oil, salt and pepper on your pad and grill away until tender.   The flavor is like asparagus flavored green beans with a funky texture.   Prickly pear enhances salsa.

This prickly pear wants it hot and dry and digs well-drained soil.   It grows in rugged conditions across the eastern two thirds of the United States.   The life expectancy of a person in the USA is 78.74 years (2015) but the prickly pear can live 80 years. The cacti have photosynthetic thick stems, the pads, that grow facing the sun and overlap each other. Antifreeze chemicals in the sap prevent the cacti from freezing in winter.   You won't see the tiny cacti leaves except on actively growing pads.   These true leaves surround the raised bumps (buds) from which grow the barbed hairs and spines, but the leaves soon fall off. The spines are actually modified leaves and the tufts of bristly hairs associated with each spine are called glochids.   Very unique to Opuntias.   This means when you get a bristle hair in your finger or skin, it will be nearly impossible to find or remove and can drive you nuts.   Remember, gloves or tongs.

From the buds on the edges of pads develop the waxy yellow flowers in spring.   The red center forms of the prickly pears growing in my yard have lemon blooms that are red-orange inside. Each plant produces several flowers from May until July.    The resulting fruit looks like a bulb or fig, the reason this cactus is also known as Indian or barbary fig.

Prickly pear fruits are called tuna, yes, tuna.   The word comes from the extinct Taino language of the Caribbean which was incorporated into Spanish.   Taino words also found their way into English: huraka-hurricane, papaya-papaya, Cubao-Cuba and tabako-tobacco. Green tuna fruit is tart but red to purple tunas are syrupy sweet.   Tunas also have glochids and need to be treated with respect (burn off the glochids) before each end is sliced and one long cut goes from one end to the other across the middle.   The skin can then be easily peeled away.   Tuna contains many hard seeds that can be swallowed, spit out or strained.   The flavor is that of ripe watermelon with a hint of bubble gum!

Raccoons and small mammals like to eat tuna.   Hummingbirds, bees and other insects visit the gorgeous flowers. Prickly pears make excellent xeriscape plants in rocky limestone areas and fields.   To propagate a prickly pear, cut off a pad with a sharp knife, let the end dry for a few days to form a callus, then plant in well-drained soil. Very little water from here on.   The cactus will do the rest.