Today, we talk about how to grow prickly pears in an organic way, whether you have a home garden, a terrace, or a balcony.
In this article, we will see how it is possible to cultivate prickly pears in the home garden. You will also be impressed by the unique functions it can have on our plot of land.
We will also try to understand its nutritional values and the care it requires. Lastly, we will explore the harvesting and cleaning of the fruits, which is a very particular and delicate operation due to the characteristic spines.
Origins of the Prickly Pear
The prickly pear, scientifically known as Opuntia ficus indica, is a succulent plant belonging to the Cactaceae family. It is native to Mexico but was widespread in ancient Central American civilizations, such as the Aztecs. These people considered it sacred and with strong symbolic connotations.
The prickly pear arrived in the Old Continent, where it quickly spread, with the return of the first expeditions of Christopher Columbus. Today, it is a plant widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean basin, with Sicily being the region where it is most commonly produced.
Varieties of Prickly Pear
The prickly pear grows spontaneously, given its ease of propagation. However, due to its prized fruits, it is also cultivated. These fruits have different names in each region of Italy, tied to local dialects and peasant traditions. The main varieties are three, distinguished by their coloration.
The “Sanguigna” variety produces prickly pears with intense red, purple color. This variety is widespread mainly in Sicily.
The “Sulfarina” is probably the most common variety, with fruits that have a yellow-orange color. It is often found in the countryside and hills, where it grows spontaneously.
Finally, we have the “Muscaredda” prickly pear, with delicately white-colored fruits. This is a highly prized variety and perhaps the least widespread of the three.
Nutritional Values and Properties of Prickly Pears
Prickly pears are exceptional fruits in terms of organoleptic qualities. They have unique characteristics in terms of the substances they contain, which should encourage us to consume them whenever we have the opportunity.
They are composed of 83% water and have very few calories, only 53 per 100 grams, with a low level of sugars. This makes them a recommended food for those suffering from diabetes, thanks to their good fiber content.
Prickly pears are rich in minerals, especially calcium (30 mg), which is beneficial for osteoporosis, and potassium (190 mg), which helps rehydrate and is essential for those engaged in physical activities.
In the arid regions of the Mexican desert, the prickly pear is a lifesaver for travelers. The plant can grow in the desert due to its ability to retain water. In emergencies, the paddles can be cut and rubbed on the skin for their healing and antibacterial properties, similar to those of aloe vera.
Another particular element in prickly pears is the presence of 25 mcg of beta-carotene. This vitamin is known for its beneficial effects on the skin and for those seeking a particular tan.
Lastly, the small, hard and unmistakable seeds of the fruit have an astringent and antibacterial function for the intestine. They can help in cases of diarrhea or sudden spasms, but they can also cause constipation.
Characteristics of the Prickly Pear Plant
Now, we will get to know this plant with ancient origins that has adapted very well to our territory. The prickly pear presents itself as a multiform composition of cladodes, i.e., the pads, which, when joined together, form a series of ramifications that increase over the years.
The plant’s roots are extensive, although they do not go deep; they descend to a maximum of 30 cm. Starting from the ground, the first pads lignify after the first few years, forming a trunk. As we all know, the pads of prickly pears are full of spines, which can be quite large depending on the variety. From the cladodes, the plant reproduces in a diversified way. New pads or flowers that will give rise to the fruit can sprout from here.
These flowers are hermaphroditic and can be yellow-orange in the case of the “sulfarina” variety, red in the “sanguigna” variety, and white in the “muscaredda” variety.
The fruits, which begin to ripen in June, are covered with another type of spine called “glochids.” These spines are very thin, almost invisible, but easily detach from the fruit. Due to their hook-like shape, these spines can get into the skin, causing discomfort.
The very small spines of the prickly pear are concentrated in the black dots seen on the fruit. They can be deceiving to the eye as they are really thin. The fruit is fleshy, and its weight can reach up to 400 grams, containing numerous seeds inside.
Cultivation in the Garden
Given its characteristics, cultivating prickly pears in the garden can offer interesting opportunities. In addition to its fruits, the plant can also be used as a windbreak, providing protective barriers for open spaces to regulate and delimit boundaries. The plants can grow up to 3 meters in height and are appreciated for their ornamental qualities.
Naturally, prickly pears do not require any irrigation. There is no need for special attention regarding the soil or fertilization. They grow well on their own, so human intervention can be minimized.
How to Plant a Prickly Pear
The cultivation of the cultivar is very simple and occurs through agamic reproduction. In early spring, it is sufficient to detach a well-formed pad from a plant that is at least 4 years old and bury it halfway into the soil.
In the photo, we see a well-formed pad, buried in the spring, detached from the plant due to strong winds.
In terms of climate, we are talking about a plant that adapts very well to various conditions. The only thing it suffers from is prolonged frost. A few frosts do not cause any damage, but conditions below freezing limit its growth and proper vegetative development.
During growth, it is advisable to shape the prickly pear by pruning the pads that grow inwards.
How to Harvest Prickly Pears
From the end of August to September, it is the time to harvest prickly pears. This operation is very delicate because, as mentioned, it involves coming into contact with the plant and its spines.
To overcome this difficulty, a specific tool is used. It is a metal harvester with a wooden extension that allows avoiding direct contact with the fruit. This tool is also useful for reaching high or difficult places.
How to Peel a Prickly Pear
Now, let’s move on to the delicate phase of cleaning the prickly pears. It is recommended to always perform this operation using protective gloves (something we did not do in the following photos):
- Place your freshly harvested prickly pears on a plate and equip yourself with a fork and a sharp, thin knife.
- At this point, hold the prickly pear steady with the fork, then make a longitudinal cut along the surface of the fruit.
- After that, cut off the two ends.
- The next step is to lift the skin and, pressing downward, detach it from the edible pulp. You can also help by rolling the fruit with the fork on the skin.
- Operation complete. Now, all that’s left is to eat it in one bite.
Biological Defense against Pests
Prickly pears, by their nature, do not offer much space for parasitic attacks. It is not a very attractive plant, also due to the waxy cuticle that covers the pads. This cuticle serves a dual function: limiting transpiration, and thus water loss from the plant, and providing a protective barrier against pests.
An exception to this rule is the cochineal insect, Dactylopius coccus. This species of cochineal is used to obtain carminic acid, which is used to produce carmine, a natural dye. This cochineal develops on the prickly pear, which is often cultivated to rear this valuable species of cochineal.
However, our goal is not to rear cochineal but to harvest and enjoy the prickly pears. Therefore, if necessary, we must defend against this parasite. For this, we refer to the article on Biological Control of Cochineal Insects with Fern Macerate.
Alternatively, to eliminate cochineal insects from our prickly pears, we can use a solution of pure Marseille soap. This substance, by affecting the outer shell of the insect exposed to the sun, dries up its pores, eradicating it and facilitating the cleaning of the plant.
- University of Nevada, Reno: “Eating Cactus: Prickly Pear for Food” – This resource discusses the nutritional benefits of prickly pears. The cactus pads are high in flavonoids, which have anti-inflammatory properties, and contain vitamin C, which absorbs iron and other nutrients.
- University of Florida: “Opuntia spp. Prickly Pear Cactus” – This resource provides information about the Opuntia species of prickly pear cactus. It requires a sunny, well-drained site and is tolerant of sandy, alkaline soils.
- North Carolina State University: “Opuntia (Prickly Pear Cactus, Rabbit Ears Cactus, Tree Cactus)” – This resource provides information about the Opuntia genus, which includes prickly pears. It mentions that this plant has low severity poison characteristics.
- University of Arizona: “Backyard Gardener – Prickly Pear Cactus, September 8, 1999” – This resource discusses the prickly pear cactus. The spiny, sweet, purple fruits, also called tunas, contain significant amounts of potassium and are ready to harvest in September.
- University of Minnesota: “Physical and chemical attributes of prickly pear cactus” – This study analyses the physical and chemical attributes of prickly pear cactus. It shows slight differences between the three varieties, but one variety had a higher fat percentage and the lowest zinc and potassium.