Our thirty-one acre corner of the Texas Hill Country used to be a sprawling ranch, mostly used for grazing longhorn cows and ornery goats, part of it for raising cotton, before cotton ruined the soil and the boll weevil ruined the cotton. It wasn’t long after that when an opportunistic plant began to colonize the landscape. Opuntia lindheimeri. Prickly pear.
Prickly pear is a useful plant in a wildlife habitat and I admire its ambition, tenacity, and strong, sculptural shapes. But it can be a hazard. The purple-red fruits (or tunas) are sweet and succulent and beloved of the raccoons, skunks, possums, coyotes, and deer, which disperse the seeds far and wide. Ingested seeds germinate readily and the cactus multiplies with astonishing swiftness. So, since Bill and I wanted to host native prairie grasses rather than this native cactus, we put in a lot of hours with our grubbing hoes. But on behalf of the wild creatures—and for our own pleasure—we saved a few plants. This year, the year of our terrible drought, they are an important food. There isn’t much else to eat.
Prickly pear is a nutritious vegetable for people, too, and was a mainstay for the Native Americans who lived in this region before the settlers came. I’ve cooked and eaten the young, tender pads (nopales) that I’ve gathered from our plants—carefully, wearing leather gloves and working with tongs and a knife to scrape off the spines. (The spikes are sharp and the small spines, or glochids, are as painful as the spikes.) Nopales are a mainstay in Mexican cookery, so we can buy them around here, fresh and fairly local, from the Rio Grande Valley, where they are a commercial crop. The prickly pear’s translucent yellow spring flowers ripen into late-summer ruby-red fruits, called tunas. These can be made into a beautiful red juice, jelly, marmalade, and syrup. Mother Earth News provides a useful collection of recipes and how-to.
The prickly pear is also medicinal. Research suggests that the nutrient-rich fiber in the fruits and pads helps to reduce cholesterol, and that the plant may be useful in the treatment of diabetes. In folk medicine, a pad, with the spines burned off, was split and warmed for use as a poultice to relieve chest congestion. A warmed pad was placed over the ear for earache, or over rheumatic or arthritic joints. The gelatinous sap was a soothing skin lotion for rashes and sunburn, and a poultice made of the mashed flesh of the pad was used to heal wounds and burns. Taken internally, the plant treated many gastrointestinal disorders.
But there’s more. (Isn’t there always?) Some of our prickly pear is host to a squadron of cochineal bugs–small insects that are related to scale, aphids, and mealy bugs. They secrete a white, cottony material that helps to protect them from birds and rodents. But the really interesting thing about these tiny bugs is their use as a coloring agent. When Cortez invaded Mexico in 1523, he saw that the Aztecs were creating a red dye from these insects, superior to anything in Europe, so he seized the Indians who were producing it and made them produce more. By 1540, these tiny bugs were a hot commodity, and cochineal had become a significant aspect of New World-Old World trade. The dye was used for the uniforms of British redcoats, as a coloring in food and drink and cosmetics, and as a paint. It wasn’t until the 1880s, when red azo dyes were introduced, that the cochineal went back to being just a bug, rather than a geo-political agent in global commerce.
Like most native plants, prickly pear served many purposes. In rural Mexico, it was used (with water, lime, and salt) to make a waterproof paint for walls, and as a formidable fence—just try getting through that dense, thorny wall! Its fibers were used to make paper and its thorns as needles and pins. Archeological evidence throughout Texas and northern Mexico underscores the importance of this plant to the Native Americans who lived here before us.
I think of this often when I see the delicate blooms, the robust green pads, and the magenta fruit of this remarkable plant. Lovely and useful in our wild garden—as long as it’s not allowed to become invasive.
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