Friday, January 24, 2020

Life as a Prickly Pear Cactus

    If you were a cactus, and wanted to live in many places, you'd be an Opuntia. Home is almost everywhere in the Western Hemisphere, but prickly pear have been introduced by humans into every area of the world. They quickly became invasive pests in many places, taking over millions of acres of land in Australia alone. Now they are truly world citizens, comfortably living and reproducing easily everywhere they can get a root-hold.

   As a child wandering the sandy Wisconsin River valley, I found prickly pear once in a while. They seemed mysterious and almost magical; the idea of cactus living in Wisconsin seemed impossible to me at the time. They even bloomed. But it was hard to imagine them living under the cold snow in our long winters. Many years later I learned they have grown in those sandy areas for a very long time and had prior experience high in the Andes and at the far end of Argentina; they are very cold hardy and were right at home.

  Visiting the Sonoran desert this winter, it was quickly apparent that opuntia are even more at home here, and there are a great many species. They suddenly became more interesting. You probably think of 'prickly pear' as the cactus with flat green pads that seem pegged together, one stacked on the other. That's what all the pictures show, and they are iconic images for desert scenes, along with the saguaros. But that commonly seen cactus is only one of almost countless prickly pear family members.

   In Sonoran desert towns, cactus are garden plants. Walking about in city neighborhoods is a great way to see many different cactus. Some are very old, their large nopales (pads) towering overhead. Many are cultivated for different uses. They interbreed easily so identifying them can be difficult.
(This reminds me of trying to identify lichens. If you follow my lichen blog, you'll know about trying to identify lichens...not for the faint of heart!)

Opuntia aciculata-cowboy whiskers prickly pear
    The more I look for prickly pear cactus, the more I find. Sometimes it seems that they have taken over the whole land, as far as one can see. I started sketching them to better remember who they are;  a challenge somewhat like trying to remember all the relatives at a family reunion who haven't been seen in decades.
   Remembering one or two characteristics of each does help sort them out.

Prickly Pears
   Almost all prickly pear are edible. All are used by every living being around them, from ants and iguanas to humans and deer, birds, and rodents. Even elephants in Africa eat them. There is a spider named for her close relationship to a prickly pear cactus ( Theridion).

   Prickly pear flowers come in many colors, and like most cactus, are spectacular and well worth the long wait for a good season of blooms.

Prickly pears-some fruit and blossoms

   In North and South America, where people have lived with prickly pear for thousands of years, the fruit is harvested but the pads or nopales are also used for food. Added to almost every type of recipe, they are a staple in many traditional diets.
Some prickly pear plants have large, tuberous roots that can be dug up, dried or roasted and eaten.

    Finally, the prickly pear is cultivated as a host for the cochineal insect that is grown for the carminic acid they produce. This acid makes the red dye used in food coloring. Large farms of closely packed prickly pear nopales are seeded with the insects, which feed on the cactus.

   Prickly pear have been in the Americas for thousands of years, growing different types of spines and shapes of pads, slowly learning how to live as far north as British Columbia and as far south as souther Argentina and Chile.

  Cactus physiology has modified what being a plant means. Their skins do the photosynthesis because they do not have leaves. Or maybe they stopped having leaves because they figured out how to use their skin and save all the work of making and caring for leaves in the hot dry climate. Leaves were modified into spines, and they have many functions since freed from the work of photosynthesis.

   Cactus spines are not thorns, and are all sharper than you can imagine. Some are brittle or even a bit soft, but they are very, very, very sharp. My habit of leaning against things when standing has been quickly modified by a few walks in the cactus forests. I'm not sure 'forest' is the correct term for cactus-land, but to me the Sonoran desert, with tall, columnar cactus towering over shrubs and smaller cactus is a forest without a canopy. What do you think it looks like?

   Opuntia are one of the plants that have developed a long, mutually beneficial relationship with humans as well as making themselves comfortable in almost every environment on their own. Even in the midwest, keep a look out for these inconspicuous but complex cactus. They might be your neighbors, no matter where you live.

Thanks for visiting! Please 'like' and 'share' if you know someone that might be interested.

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