Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Old Spineless

I admired a particular cactus last fall at the TNLA Expo, and stopped to talk with the vendor. Not only was this a (mostly) spineless cactus, it was also variegated emerald and lime green. Pretty sensational. This variegated type is the decorator version of the hardworking Opuntia ficus-indica, which I grow. No spikes means it is easier to tend, prepare, and eat. The vendor thought Opuntia ficus-indica has been selected for spinelessness since prehistory. That really intrigues me and I wanted to know more.

My very brief research turned up this nice paper. I learned that sailing ships were stocked with Opuntia ficus-indica to prevent scurvy. The cactus was distributed around the planet via trade routes and people in distant places think the cactus is native to their own country. But DNA studies show it is closely related to several central Mexican prickly pear species. The authors present multiple possibilities for its origin, with more research needed. I am partial to the romantic idea that someone in ancient Mesoamerica found or hybridized a spineless sport and it has been propagated vegetatively ever since, right up to my potting up a pad from my neighbor.

My specimen, in the photo above, grew from the piece I picked up while out walking the dog. (On dog walks I have also found plumeria branches, macho aloes, and ceramic pots of all sizes set out for the trash, or opportunistic gardeners.) This is the mother plant:

See how she is ‘arborescent’.
In summer a tuna (fruit, not fish) grew on my Opuntia ficus-indica, and when it looked ready, I picked it. The Kid and I shared it. It was impressive for its brilliant violet juice but was not too flavorful. This “Indian fig” is what the species name refers to. I have not tried julienning and serving up the pads yet. I don’t crave the taste of cactus but it’s good to know it’s there to eat, come the revolution.

Prickly pear pads at my local supermarket, Fiesta. These have spines, hence the tongs you see here!

My cactus produced a spiny throw-back of a pad from the base the main trunk. I plucked it out. I’m curious what triggers going spineless to spiny. Luther Burbank developed cactus varieties for livestock feed, and wrote that many spiny cacti have spineless sports from time to time.

Every article I read about ‘spineless’ cacti mentions the glochids, and I’ll mention them too. When you move a large-ish Opuntia ficus-indica from one side of your garden to the other, and up some steps, you end up with short, almost invisible, glochids in your arms. Those are the hairs that cluster in the sparse nodes visible on the pad. They are annoying, but they seem to disintegrate in the skin after a few days where they are not completely removed by tweezers.

1 comment:

Christina said...

The cactus pads are actually pretty good! (Once the spines are removed and they are cut up, boiled, and drained.)