Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Prickly Pear Cactus, Opuntia humifusa

Opuntia humifusa 

I noticed something when I was taking this photo above: lots of insects crawling around inside a really tangled mass of stamens.  I've since learned this plant has thigmotactic anthers—that is, they curl over when touched to deposit pollen into the bowl of the flower.  There the insects get thoroughly dusted before leaving for another blossom.  Take a look for yourself:


Opuntia spp. of the Carolina Coast
There are two common species of Prickly Pear in the coastal Carolinas, O. humifusa (syn. O. compressa), and O. drummondii, and they can intergrade, making species identification tricky.  They both show up in the landscape just past the frontal dunes at the coast and throughout sandy areas beyond.  These species are native throughout the eastern and mid-western parts of the United States and Mexico and there are many more species throughout the southwestern parts of these countries.

You can eat it, just don't step on it.
Careful peeling is required to remove the sharp spines and the hairlike, irritating glochids
just around the spines, but both the fruits and pads of Prickly Pear are edible. I visited the fabulous Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix several years ago and tasted Prickly Pear tea which was welcome refreshment in 105 degree heat. It was tart like hibiscus and about the same color.

A little plant history...
This photo was taken in La Palma, Canary Islands, where Opuntia spp. is grown as food for—get this—an insect.  The scale insect Dactylopius coccus is responsible for a crimson dye which is used for food color and cosmetics.  It feeds on the pads of several Opuntia species.  I thought this interesting enough to call my 12 year old into the room and fill her in.  "Oh, I learned about that on the EOGs," she said.  Mom's news was a little ho hum.  She went on to tell me that the dye is called cochineal.  Cochineal was being used in Mexico when the first European explorers visited and had its heyday in Europe until the 1800s.  It fell out of favor once coal tar dyes became available, but now there is a resurgence of interest in cochineal because it is all natural and thought to be safer for humans and the environment than coal derivatives.

Freundliche Opuntie auf La Palma by Haplochromis
What do you think of this "freundliche"guy?
If you're not cringing, and you like this sort of whimsy, Ken Druse's book, The Passion for Gardening, has a more artistic interpretation of carved cacti with a slew of Prickly Pears in clay pots smiling light through one of his profiled gardens.  He assured the reader no harm is done to the plant; I can't imagine a child of any age who wouldn't be cheered at the sight of them.


1 comment:

  1. Damn those glochids, especially now that I know they have their own name.

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