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Contra Costa Times

July 2 2006


Prickly pears add color but beware of needles

Walnut Creek's Ruth Bancroft, a national authority on drought-resistant gardening, shares her knowledge with Times readers twice a month.

OPUNTIAS, or prickly pear, are the largest group in the whole cactus family, with about 180 species. They range from small ground-hugging plants to trees with distinct trunks, but are easily distinguished from all other kinds of cactuses by their unique stems, which form flattened segments referred to as pads. The pads are sometimes mistaken for leaves, but the true leaves resemble tiny fingers and are only present on newly-grown pads. Most kinds of cactuses do not develop leaves at all.

Prickly pears are widely associated with the southwestern deserts and with Mexico, but few people realize how widespread they are. They occur in nature from Canada down to Argentina, and are common on islands in the Caribbean. In the contiguous 48 states of the U.S., only Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire have no native opuntia. Only in the arid Southwest, however, are they a prominent feature of the landscape. Though all prickly pears come originally from the Americas, they have escaped or been introduced in many other areas, from Australia to Africa.

Opuntias have two kinds of spines: needle-like spines (similar to those of other cactuses) and tiny hair-like spines called glochids. Care must be taken to avoid getting poked by the needles, but the little glochids pose another hazard. They dislodge easily and have tiny barbs, so they are hard to remove. Handling prickly pears without gloves or tongs can leave hundreds of glochids embedded in your skin; more annoying than injurious, but definitely to be avoided. Planting them alongside sidewalks or paths is therefore not advised.

Despite their defenses, Opuntias have been cultivated for thousands of years. From an ornamental point of view, they have a dramatic and unusual form, and most have beautiful flowers. Flower color can be yellow, orange, red, magenta, pink or white. The fruits are often large and showy as well, providing a second display of color later in the year.

They can be purple, red, orange, yellow or green. The fruits of many kinds of prickly pear are sold in markets. They can be eaten fresh, or used to make jelly. Each October, the Ruth Bancroft Garden hosts a special fruit-tasting tour, providing an opportunity to sample a variety of prickly pear fruit. One species, Opuntia ficus-indica, is widely grown for its fruit in various countries; it has a spineless form, which is easier to deal with. The young pads may be eaten as well. These are called nopales in Mexico, and are a common vegetable.

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