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Opportune opuntia

September 20, 2015

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Red to purple
Red to purple

There are opportunities and opportunities, and it would be fair to observe that we Pakistanis are fairly good at grabbing them by their proverbial throat and then ‘milking’ them for every conceivable benefit we can get: it may, therefore, come as a surprise, to learn that we have overlooked one!

Some regions on this increasingly drought prone planet — a very true statement as events such as seasonal monsoons are getting shorter, if more intense, in duration and the dry spells in between correspondingly longer — are merrily reaping the benefit, in the form of food, drink and cash, from the commercial cultivation of that very prickly customer which is botanically known as Opuntia ficus indica/dilleni and more commonly as ‘Prickly pear’ or ‘Barberry fig’ cactus. Home gardeners, excepting for us, have long been growing this incredible plant too.

Opuntia are of classic cacti construction: thick, fleshy pads of a round to oval shape, each one seemingly balanced on the next at often intriguing angles. These pads are doubly armed, firstly with clearly visible, very sharp, large spines and secondly with an almost invisible ‘fuzz’ of hair-like spines with lethal hooks. You may, naturally, wonder why, when they are so well armed, the writer is waxing lyrical about them and I don’t blame you one bit!


So easy to grow, yet so useful — why do so few people know this plant


The crux of the matter though, is that every single bit — apart from the defensive spines of course — is 100 per cent edible, is reasonably nutritious and can be served up in an amazing variety of ways, plus, the jell-like substance inside the pads, has cosmetic uses as well.

Flowering once a year, twice if the climate really agrees with it, Opuntia is best known for the delectable delicacy of its unusual, egg-shaped and sized, fruit — this can be yellow, red or purplish when ripe — which can be eaten raw, made into jams, jellies and syrups, fried, stewed, baked, barbecued or, if one wants to adhere to tradition, squished up and drunk for a surprisingly thirst quenching treat. In Mexico, for instance, Opuntia fruit juices are the base of a wide range of other ‘juices’, but we won’t go into that here!

The very pretty fruits, lined up as they tend to be around pad edges, are striking in appearance but do not, this is a serious warning, reach out and pick one unless you are wearing thick, leather gloves or something similar as the invisible hairy-spines will embed themselves in your fingers without a moment’s hesitation and its is a tedious tweezer job to get them out. The same precaution applies whilst you carefully peel the fruit before putting it anywhere near your mouth.

The pads, which can get so large and heavy that the plant needs propping up, must also be handled with as much care — and hand / arm protection — as you can muster. These also must be peeled before you eat them, whether cooked — and it curries surprisingly well — or raw in salads, or if your intention is to lather it on your face as a cleansing, softening mask or slather it on your hair as a natural and very good conditioner.

Fruit can be yellow
Fruit can be yellow

Growing Opuntia is, as long as soil and climatic conditions are suitable, surprisingly easy. It enjoys a well drained — read ‘arid’ or ‘desert-like’ — sandy / rocky soil, no or extremely minute quantities of water once established, as much sun as it can get. It is quite at home if temperatures do not exceed 50oC or drop below minus 6oC or thereabouts when plants may get frost damaged and die back but, unsurprisingly, this determined to survive come-what-may-cactus, often re-grows from its frost blacked ‘ashes’ and lives to fight another day.

It can be grown from seed but this is a long, tedious chore and it can take quite a few years for a seed grown plant to attain enough size and maturity for it to produce the desired flowers and then fruits: to say nothing of its rather yummy pads, of course.

It is much easier and faster to propagate it from a pad cut off an existing adult plant. The selected pad should be cut, while wearing gloves of course and using a very sharp knife, off the pad below it at the narrowest point of the joint. Next step is to lay it, in a ‘safe’ place well out of anyone or anything’s way, leave it there to dry for a couple of weeks and then plant it, in a suitable medium, just deep enough so that it stands up on its own but if it refuses to do so, then give it some support by all means. Water lightly — once every three weeks is more than enough — until it is settled and then plant it out and leave it be.

Opuntia can reach a height and spread of considerable size in optimum growing conditions so it is best to prune them back to a height and spread suiting your personal growing space. It is also sensible to thin out overcrowded flowers so that remaining flowers develop into top quality fruit.

Opuntia & Rosemary below a towering Agave plant in bloom
Opuntia & Rosemary below a towering Agave plant in bloom

This species is particularly suitable to hot, arid areas of the country: Thar desert, Bahawalpur, Multan, the Salt Range, Balouchistan, all spring to mind, plus, having seen some fine specimens around Barakho and Simly, then the areas around Islamabad and Rawalpindi should suit it too.

Please continue sending your gardening queries to zahrahnasir@hotmail.com. Remember to include your location. The writer does not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 20th, 2015

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