|By William Scheick
iding “through a Texas pear flat,” a famous short story author wrote, is “more weird and lonesome than the journey of an Amazonian explorer”: “With dismal monotony . the uncanny and multiform shapes of the cacti lift their twisted trunks, and fat, bristly hands to encumber the way. The demon plant . warps itself a thousand times about what look to be open and inviting paths, only to lure the rider into blind and impassable spine-defended `bottoms of the bag.'”
This description of wild prickly pears appears in “The Caballero’s Way,” a story by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910). Having lived in Texas for a while, O. Henry knew firsthand about the menace of these native succulents.
Prickly pears are no less problematic on today’s ranches, which is why Dave Gross in Oglesby, Texas, invented the Kactus Krusher. Dragged behind a tractor, this hefty machine mows, shreds and crushes prickly pears while minimally damaging native grasses.
Is there any hope for this spiny nuisance which pioneer Texans disparaged as “devil cactus”? Apparently. Prickly pear has traditionally served as a property security barrier in Mexico, and its fleshy pads have been known to retard the spread of fire in areas made vulnerable by drought.
Prickly pear has also long been a favorite subject for Lone Star painters. Today, too, it has increasingly become a garden option valued for its look, endurance and low maintenance. This is quite a change in status for O. Henry’s formidable “demon plant.”
Opuntia appears in two shapes: cylindrical and padded. The cylindrical types are known as chollas, the padded as prickly pears. Both produce attractive fruits – usually yellow for chollas and purple-red for prickly pears. Despite their fruits, both types tend to reproduce by root expansion or fallen pads.
Prickly pear is native only to the Americas, but the number of its species remains unknown. In fact, the South American members of Optunia have barely been identified, much less studied.
To complicate matters, Optunia species readily crossbreed. This means that new hybrids appear frequently in the wild. While such easy hybridization impedes efforts at scientific classification, it also provides opportunities for plant growers to produce naturally-occurring novel varieties for ornamental use.
Sometimes a prickly pear species will even produce multiple versions (mutations). This is the case with O. robusta, a treelike and multi-branched Mexican cactus capable of reaching nearly 10 feet high. This wickedly spined plant occasionally produces spineless variations, and these deviations from the norm have become the sources for handsome garden selections of this plant.
PRICKLY BLOOMS, PADS
The color of prickly pear flowers also varies. The low-growing beavertail cactus (O. basilaris), which can be spineless, sports striking flowers ranging from bright yellow to cherry red. The plains prickly pear (O. macrorhiza), which ranges southward from the Midwest, commonly produces yellow flowers. But in this case the word “yellow” is inadequate to convey the various shades of this floral hue. The flowers can be reddish-yellow, orange-yellow, lemon-yellow or cream-yellow.
Also making a dramatic statement in the garden, prickly pear pads vary in tint, shape and size. The pads of the black-spined prickly pear (O. macrocentra), for example, turn mauve-green when stressed by cold or drought. The Santa Rita candle cactus (O. santa-rita), native to the Southwest, forms violet-purple pads as well as yellow flowers with red throats. The Texas native succulent popularly known as old man whiskers (O. aciculata), also marketed as chenille prickly pear, offers eye-catching patterns defined by wide-spaced spines on its pads. It produces gorgeous orangey-red glochids, which are small hairy clusters of modified spines.
For zany garden accents there are at least six varieties of cow’s tongue cactus (O. engelmannii), famous for the unusual shape of its pads and infamous for its capacity to colonize plowed or over-grazed areas. One variety of this Texas native, linguiformis, develops elongated pads of various lengths adorned with single long spines and attractive auburn glochids. Another variety, lindheimeri, sprawls untidily and forms extremely odd-shaped pads looking like cows’ tongues. The yellow spines of this variety lack the auburn spine clusters of linguiformis
Prickly pears, which require virtually no maintenance, bring more to the garden than flowers, pads and spines. They also bring history.
Prickly pears were used by Native Americans to treat various medical ailments, including coughs and rheumatism. The Pima Indians used cow’s tongue cactus to aid nursing women; the Navajo used the black-spined prickly pear for medical lances; and the Shoshoni used the beavertail cactus as a poultice for wounds.
Over the centuries the pads and fruits of these cacti provided food for humans and animals alike – and not just during bad times. Today, too, prickly pear pads (nopalitos) are still used in delicious salads, soups, casseroles, chilis, salsas, preserves and even desserts.
O. ficus-indica, the so-called Indian fig from Mexico, is the most common source for culinary pads. Harvested pads should be young, small, tender and bright green. Of course, glochids must be cut out of the harvested pad before preparing it for eating. If an inch or so of stub is left on the plant from which the pad has been harvested, a new pad will likely form.
Fruits, which vary wildly in quality and are often quite sour, should be harvested with tongs when they are maximally ripe – usually when they are a deep purple-red. When carefully peeled, they can be eaten raw or cooked.
Also with tradition in mind, O. ‘Old Mexico’ is not to be overlooked. This fast-growing, 4-foot South Texas pass-along, suitable for zones 8 to 10, produces large spineless pads which have traditionally been used to make long-lasting Christmas wreaths. Its many radiant yellow flowers are also a sight to behold.