Prickly Pear cacti have edible fruit
The Prickly Pear cacti are all species in the Opuntia family,and although they look like native plants of the Canary Islands they did not originate there. Prickly Pear cacti all bear edible fruit, just like their name suggests, however, you must be careful to watch out for the spines.
There are two main species found on Tenerife and the plants are an unmissable feature of the landscapes. Prickly Pears enjoy the hot, dry and arid conditions, especially in the south of the island and on the coasts, and this is why they have done so well. They are actually invasive weeds though, despite their uses as a food source.
Prickly Pears photo
Prickly Pear flower photo
Prickly Pear types found on Tenerife
There are two main species of Prickly Pear cactus that can be found on the island of Tenerife. They are easy to identify and both have edible 'pears.'
These cacti have a large number of green flattened and succulent pads from which their flowers and fruit are produced. The pads also bud and create more new pads and so the plants can form quite large clumps. Pads that break away can root themselves and start a new plant and this is one way the cacti spread.
O. dillenii is far more common in the south of the island and has long spines that are carried in groups of three. It has yellow flowers that are followed by juicy maroon-purple-coloured fruit. Although the skins of its fruit are smooth there are a number of areoles that are full of glochids, which are tiny barbed spines. It is important to be careful that you do not get these in you when picking, peeling or eating these fruit.
O. ficus-barbarica tends to be seen more often in more mountainous areas and mainly in the north of the island, although it can be grown in the south too. It has orange or reddish flowers and its pads are armed with many areoles that carry short spines. The 'pears' of this species also carry this form of defense and start off green in colour. They turn yellowish or reddish as they mature.
Both types have fruit that is sold in markets and greengrocers in Tenerife, although the ficus-barbarica fruit are the ones most often seen.
Both species come from Mexico originally but liked the conditions on the island and have naturalised themselves and spread to many areas of waste ground, abandoned farmland, coastal plains and volcano slopes and mountainsides..
Species of Cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia) are also often found on Tenerife as well. This type of cactus is unmistakeable because of the very large number of long and most vicious spines that its segmented stems carry. The segments break off readily at the joints and can get attached to passing animals or humans by embedding their spines into the clothing or flesh of their victims.
Cholla cacti have a number of temporary green succulent and spiky leaves at the top of their stems too.
Food From Prickly Pear Cactus
Prickly Pear uses
Prickly Pears are incredibly useful plants and can be employed in dye production, as medicine, and as food.
The fruit are known as cactus fruit, cactus fig, Indian fig or "tuna" in Spanish. They can be eaten raw, made into jams and jellies, and even used to flavour ice-cream and desserts. Prickly Pear fruit are made into drinks as well. IN the mountain village of Masca in Tenerife some of the restaurants sell "Cactus ice-cream."
The pads, especially when young are edible too and known as "nopales." They can be sliced up and eaten in salad or cooked as a vegetable or as part of mixed dishes such as the Mexican Huevos con Nopales ("Eggs with Nopales"). They are an important ingredient in cooking and dishes in many parts of the world, but Mexico especially, as this is where the cacti originated.
Prickly Pears are said to be a treatment for diabetes and also as an antidote for hangovers. The various types of Opuntia though have different amounts of medicinal compounds and anti-oxidants so some species are better that other types for specific ailments.
The sap of Prickly Pears has even been employed as hair conditioner.
The cacti have often been cultivated as the host plants for the Cochineal Bug (Dactylopius coccus). These insects are scale insects and the red dye known as cochineal is extracted from their crushed bodies. The bugs feed on the sap of the cacti's pads. Cochineal, being a natural dye and food colouring, has experienced a resurgence in its popularity. It is used in some popular foods including yogurts.
In conclusion it can be said that Prickly Pears are far more than just prickly cacti!
Copyright © 2011 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.
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Steve Andrews (author) from Tenerife on April 22, 2011:
Thank you for your comments, Breakfastpop and Eiddwen!
Eiddwen from Wales on April 22, 2011:
A grteat hub and a good way to start my day. This hub is so very well presented and so much information.
breakfastpop on April 19, 2011:
Right now Tenerife seems like a fantastic place to be. Maybe one day....