Friday, June 13, 2014

Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus

Eastern Prickly Pear, our native cactus, in bloom along my driveway

Close-up of the edible cactus flower, which only lasts one day

     Not many people are aware we have a native cactus in our region, the Eastern Prickly Pear Opuntia humifusa. Even fewer know much about its ethnobotanical qualities. While some people may have seen either the "pear" fruits or the pads themselves in some markets, very few people know the flower "petals" (actually tepals in botanical terms) are edible, and I find tasty. Since my plants don't always fruit dependably, the fruits can vary widely in how tasty they are, and the pads are difficult to work with, I find the flowers the best part of the plant.
     Each flower lasts only one day, so I usually wait until the end of the day to give them a chance to get pollinated and then only take a couple of "petals" from each flower. The flowers themselves are large and beautiful, if fleeting. Bees seem to be their primary pollinators. 
     The plants can obviously take some dry and harsh conditions. I have a several growing from the cinder blocks that line my driveway for example. They are easiest planted by breaking off a pad and then planting it about halfway into the soil. Be careful when working among the plants however (or when harvesting any edibles from them). The large spines may seem obvious, but the real nasty protection the plant has are the "glochids" spine-like hairs which are tiny and difficult to see that can easily embed into the skin and are very difficult to remove, and can even get infected. 
     This makes me curious who figured out some of the human uses for this cactus. Many Native American Indian tribes for instance used juice from the pads to treat wounds, warts, and even snake bites. Francis Porcher's ethnobotanical tome put together during the Civil War in the South (often referred to as the "Confederate Ethnobotany") also lists some of these uses. The manual even gives detailed steps on how to utilize the plants to harden tallow candles, to "have the consolation of of knowing that we are independent of the extortioners, who are next of kin to the villainous abolitionist makers of stearine candles in the North." 
     I'm glad we live in more enlightened times when it comes to that, but feel we are so much more disconnected from the natural world and what it could provide in so many other ways, even if by necessity. Regardless, I look forward to seeing the beautiful blooms growing among the cinder blocks of my driveway and the novelty of growing a native cactus, though my son has a couple of times not been happy with their proximity to the cars...

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