The prickly pear is one of the most popular members of the cacti species. Thanks to the huge awareness of cacti, it has become a household name in many parts of the world.
The prickly pear has become so established in different parts of the world, including areas where it is not native.
In fact, it is so widespread that its original, natural habitat is still unknown. Some people believe it originated in Mexico, while others argue that it is native to California.
Whatever you believe, there are a lot of things to learn about the prickly cactus. From its delicious fruit to its blooms and flowers, the cactus provides you with a good learning experience.
In this post, we discuss some of the exciting facts about the cactus pear and what makes it unique. Read on to discover more.
1. The Prickly Pear Was Introduced In Europe by Christopher Columbus
There was a time when most parts of the world didn’t know about the existence of the prickly pear. However, things started to change when explorers to the new world began returning with the unusual plant specimens. Many of them didn’t know if it would survive outside its natural habitat, but they had to try.
Although cacti were a familiar sight to many Americans and some parts of South America, the first cactus seen in Europe was a prickly pear specimen gifted to Queen Isabella of Spain by Christopher Columbus.
Today, these succulents are all over the world. Most of them are found in the United States, including the Caribbean Islands and Galapagos Islands. Some of them can still be found in Old World areas too.
The prickly pear remains one of the most vital members of the wildlife community. Various parts of the plant provide food for iguanas, peccaries, deer, rabbits, tortoises, and many other bird species. They also provide shelter for reptiles, birds, rodents, and cactus wrens.
2. Desert Beauties
When the prickly pears blossom, it is always a scene to savor. The flowers vary in color and size and form exciting patterns. The colors range from pink to yellow, magenta, red, or orange. Some of the blooms are large, while others are relatively small.
When several of these succulents are seen together during the flowering season, the site is indescribable. The vibrant colors of their blooms illuminate the desert, giving it life. Bees and hummingbirds usually dance around the flowers for the nectar.
The plant is also home to desert wildlife running away from predators. Reptiles, rodents, quails, and different types of birds can all be found around the prickly pear. Therefore, it is good to be cautious when you are around them, especially in the desert.
When human beings don’t pluck the fruit, it is eaten by squirrels, peccaries, beetles, tortoises, jackrabbits, and iguanas. The paddle is also edible, but you need to be careful with the spines. Take time to remove them and prepare your fruit appropriately before eating.
The cactus pear fruit is also popular for its natural cochineal dye. The dye is mainly used in our everyday products, such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and textiles. Some of it is even used in waterproof paint for our homes.
Outside of the gorgeous flowers, the prickly pear still plays a critical role in the desert and human ecosystem.
3. Unique Identifying Features
The prickly pear is perhaps a unique cactus in the cacti family. The cactus can easily be identified thanks to its broad, flat, and green pads. The pads are covered with white spines that are approximately three inches long. The spines can be curved or straight.
The plant is also covered with tiny, barbed hairs referred to as glochids. You will notice groups of up to six spines emerging from common center areas known as the areoles. These areas are scattered all over each pad.
The flowering usually starts around May or June. And the fruits usually ripen around July. You will know that the fruit is ripe if it has turned to a bright red color.
The red fruit is also known as “tuna” and offers a wide range of health benefits. It has anti-inflammatory properties and can help you lose weight. It also improves your immune system and alleviates ulcers.
4. The Spines Serve More Than One Function
As mentioned earlier, a prickly pear’s pad is covered with thorn-like structures known as spines. While most of us think that these spines are only used for protection, the truth is that they serve more than one function.
Besides protection, they are also used for sun protection, drinking straw, and coats. They reflect sunlight hence protecting the cactus plant from sunburn. They also keep out the cold on frosty nights.
Clouds of mist usually condense on the spines forming water which the cactus then absorbs. That is why they are sometimes referred to as “drinking straw.”
When animals pass near the plant, they get caught in the fur and fall far away, propagating into new plants. This helps to ensure the plant doesn’t become extinct.
The prickly pear is also considered “musical” because its spines were traditionally used as gramophone needles. Don’t be surprised because they did the job pretty well.
5. They Are Intoxicating
Native Americans that interacted with the prickly pear extensively discovered that the plant was somehow intoxicating. Some of them chewed the plants raw, believing that it will take them closer to the gods.
They usually combined the prickly pear with the peyote cactus native to many parts of North America. The peyote cactus contains mescaline that can be intoxicating when it reaches the human body.
Louis Lewin first examined the peyote cactus in 1888 and was able to extract anhalonin from it. However, in 1896, Arthur Heffter conducted another experiment on the plant and extracted pure mescaline from it.
A few years later, Ernest Spath achieved a total synthesis that laid a solid foundation for the synthetic production of the intoxicant from peyote and prickly pear cacti. Mescaline is a powerful intoxicant that is illegal in many countries.
It has also been declared illegal worldwide by the United Nations Convention. In the United States, if you are found to be in possession of mescaline, you may be jailed for up to five years.
6. They Photosynthesize
Most of us know that every plant and animal requires food to survive. Plants usually make their own food through the process of photosynthesis.
During the day, their stomata open to absorb carbon dioxide that is used in the process of photosynthesis. However, this process uses a lot of water and would not be ideal for desert plants such as prickly pear.
So, how does the cactus survive? Well, instead of opening the stomata during the day, prickly pear and other desert plants experience reverse opening and closing of the stomata.
It means that their stomata remain closed during the day to avoid losing a lot of water due to evaporation but opens during the night. During this time, the evaporation isn’t as high as during the day.
But since the plant cannot photosynthesize during the night due to lack of sunlight, the absorbed carbon dioxide is usually stored in the form of an acid. During the day, the acid breaks down, releasing carbon dioxide into the plant cells to facilitate photosynthesis.
This way, photosynthesis saves up to 90% of water consumption. The only downside of this process is that it requires more energy than the normal photosynthesis process, but the prickly pear has learned how to handle it pretty well.
7. The Cactus Pear Is Both a Fruit and Vegetable
As mentioned earlier, the cactus pear fruit is also known as “tuna.” It is entirely edible and offers a wide range of health benefits.
Before you eat it, you need to ensure it is ripe and take time to get rid of any visible barbed spines that may get lodged in your throat. However, that isn’t the only edible part of the cactus.
The green pads are also edible, and many people consider them a vegetable. Most people harvest them in late spring and early summer and dice them into their meals.
Many Mexican cuisines use the pads or fruit as an ingredient, and the culture is slowly being accepted in other parts of the world.
Most people who grew up in parts of South America must have eaten “nopalitos,” a term coined from the Spanish word nopal, meaning the cactus.
8. The Prickly Pear Pharmacy
Native Americans discovered much more than a food source in the prickly pear. Besides the nutritious element, the early inhabitants who loved the cactus also found a verifiable pharmacy in the plant.
The prickly pear has been used to treat cuts and bruises, stomach upsets, cold symptoms, constipation, inflammation, and even diabetes.
If you or your loved one is suffering from a cold, simply heat the pad and place it on your chest to relieve the congestion. It won’t be long before you start feeling well.
That is it about some of the exciting facts about the prickly pear, and we hope you enjoyed reading this post.
So, what are you doing next? Grabbing your car keys and heading to your local nursery to find yourself a prickly pear? Go on and let us know if you like it.