Indian Fig Cactus

So important has Opuntia been as a source of food for the peoples of North America that the origins of its use are lost in ancient mythology. One species more than any other, now known as the Indian fig cactus, O. ficus-indica, has had a great effect on the indigenous people of the New World as well as on those in Europe after its introduction there in the sixteenth century. Bravo-Hollis (1978, 6-11) discusses the use of Opuntia by Native Americans in Mexico prior to their conquest by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. It was widely used for various purposes throughout much of Mexico and it had been dispersed by humans from its original location, which was probably central Mexico. In addition to food, it is used to treat whooping cough, diabetes, prostate problems, rheumatism, and nosebleed. It is also used in dentistry (Duke and Vasquez 1994,125). Se-juro (1990,31) claims that it has been used therapeutically by the Nazca in Peru.

The original source of Opuntia ficus-indica as well as its original characteristics are unknown because indigenous people long ago selected horticultural and hybrid forms (Bravo-Hollis 1978, 320). Russell and Felker (1987,435) claim that O. ficus-indica was taken to Spain by Columbus on his first trip to the New World. Others dispute this but there is little doubt that the plant had been taken to the Caribbean prior to Columbus's arri

Plantation of Opuntia ficus-indica on Sicily val. The Spanish were intrigued by the plant, not only because of its distinct appearance but also because of the importance attached to it by the Native Americans, particularly the Aztecs, for economic, religious, and social purposes. One of the most fascinating economic aspects is that the plant was vital to the production of a red dye from the crushed bodies of the cochineal insect that used the cactus as its host plant (Barbera et al. 1992,11). Another species, O. humifusa, probably reached Europe early in the seventeenth century (Leuenberger 1993).

Once Opuntia ficus-indica reached Spain it quickly became naturalized through vegetative reproduction and the dispersal of seeds by birds, spreading throughout much of the country. The Moors were finally expelled from Spain in 1610 and are believed to have taken the cactus to North Africa, where it became widely naturalized as well (Russell and Felker 1987,435). Spain's influence throughout much of Europe in the sixteenth century led to its spread to Italy, Greece, and other Mediterranean countries. The rapid dispersal of O. ficus-indica throughout the Mediterranean by humans for ornament and as a curiosity, and by natural means, so confused many early botanists that some believed it to be native rather than an introduction from the New World. Almost as soon as it was seen by Europeans it became known as ficus indica, Indian fig (Barbera et al. 1992,1112). In 1565, Pier Andrea Mattioli wrote that the name was a poor one, for the plant was quite different from the true Indian fig tree that had been described centuries earlier by Theophrastus, Strabo, and Pliny. He further wrote that the plant called opuntia by Pliny may have been the same species since it grew near Opuns in India (Friedrich 1975,64). Howard and Touw (1981,235) suggest, however, that the name is derived from the name of the Greek region, Locris Opuntia, the capital of which was Opus. They further state that a plant from that region seemed similar to the cactus, not because of its spiny nature but because it could propagate vegetatively.

Cochineal dye led to the introduction of Opuntia ficus-indica to the Canary Islands, where a major industry was created and continues to the present. Attempts were also made to develop the industry in Spain but with less success (Russell and Felker 1987,435).

Indian Fig Cactus Photos

Other species of Opuntia were also introduced to Europe during the sixteenth century but none had the influence of O. ficus-indica. Fruits may have been used for food for a short time, then the cacti were used simply an ornamentals or as hedges.

Europeans quickly recognized the importance of Opuntia ficus-indica as a source of fruit, and by the seventeenth century it was cultivated widely throughout the Mediterranean. The island of Sicily proved to be particularly suitable and by the middle of the nineteenth century large plantations had been established, often intercropped with fruit trees. One French agronomist, visiting Sicily in 1840, commented that the cactus was "the manna, the blessing of Sicily" (Barbera et al. 1992,12). An innovation was developed by Sicilian farmers to produce larger fruits later in the season. The process, called scozzolatura, involves removal of the first flush of flowers. This stimulates the plant to produce a second set of flowers later in the season that develop into larger, fleshier fruits with fewer seeds (Barbera et al. 1992,16). Such fruits bring a higher market price.

Sicilians use the fruits as Mexicans do, boiling the juice into a syrup and also producing a jam. A tea is made from the flowers and drunk for kidney problems. Dried flowers are also ground into a paste and applied to the skin for measles (Gait and Gait 1978, 24). The Sicilians do not eat the stem joints, however, which Mexicans call nopales and nopalitos. Instead, stem joints are fed to livestock on occasion because of their high water content (Barbera et al. 1992,17).

Commercial plantings of Opuntia ficus-indica are also found in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Algeria, and South Africa. Its introduction into South Africa was not without problems. Introduced to the Cape region in the seventeenth century, the cactus quickly escaped and by the early twentieth century infested nearly 1,000,000 hectares (2,470,000 acres). The spiny form of O. ficus-indica has been declared an invader plant. Fortunately, biological controls have been successful and most infestations have been eradicated. Biological control is discussed in more detail under Cacti as Weeds. The spiny form of O. ficus-indica is thus a weed that is now under control, but there continue to be efforts to use the plant in several ways. It has proven valuable as cattle fodder and forage, especially during drought periods. Informal marketing of the fruits occurs, mostly along roadsides, but the fruits fetch a low price because of the spines.

The spineless form of Opuntia ficus-indica has not been declared a weed in South Africa and there are extensive plantations in various areas, especially in the karoo. There, more than 26,000 hectares (64,200 acres) of grazing land have been planted with it for cattle fodder and forage, and interest seems to be growing in producing fruits for markets throughout the country (Brutsch and Zimmermann 1993,158-159). Experiments are also underway to determine if it would be commercially practical to grow cochineal insects, Dactylopius spp., on harvested stem joints to produce carminic acid, the dye.

The dispersal of Opuntia ficus-indica into western North America has had both biological and cultural consequences. In the middle of the eighteenth century the Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church founded a series of missions in settlements established by the government of New Spain along the Pacific coast of what is now Baja California in Mexico and California in the United States. Partly, it was the desire of the Franciscans to convert Native Americans to Christianity, but they were also concerned by the Russian presence at Fort Ross in northern California and wanted to prevent the Russians from moving down the coast. The first Franciscan mission in California was in San Diego, established in 1769. The church fathers and those who accompanied them brought seeds and livestock, including sheep, whose wool was an efficient carrier of seeds and fruits. Not only did seeds of Mediterranean plants get transported by livestock to Mexico, but also to California along with seeds of native Mexican plants. The new residents of the missions also brought various fruit-producing plants, including figs, grapes, and O. ficus-indica. The cactus was planted at each mission established along the coast of California, and it came to be known as the mission cactus. The fruits provided an important source of nutrition, and mucilage from the stem joints was used as an adhesive in making adobe blocks for construction of the missions (Benson 1982,517-518). This prolific, introduced

cactus soon escaped from cultivation and became naturalized in various parts of California, often hybridizing naturally with native California prickly pears, creating a taxonomic mess because of the many hybrid populations (Benson and Walkington 1965).

The Indian fig or mission cactus is still a significant economic plant in many arid and semiarid regions of the world. Mexico continues to be one of the major consumers of products from Opuntiaficus-indica. The American explorer Ed-Opuntiaficus-indica at ward Palmer reported on the use of the prickly San Juan Capistrano pear, or tuna, in his field notes of 1878, showing mission, California that Mexicans continue to use the plant as they have for generations (Bye 1979b, 158-162). The fruits of O. ficus-indica and of the opuntias that have hybridized with it are the most widely cultivated prickly pears, but other Mexican species of Opuntia are also used. Fruits of all of them are harvested from both plantations and from wild plants, and sold in local markets and along roadsides. Large quantities are exported to the United States. The juicy pulp makes up 60-75% of the fruit and has 12-15% sugar content. This relatively high sugar content makes possible the making of miel de tuna, prickly pear honey, by boiling mashed pulp from which the seeds have been removed until it becomes a thick syrup. Upon cooling, it "gradually crystallized and has a very pleasing flavor, somewhat like maple sugar, only finer grained" (Nickerson 1929, 70). Another item often found in Mexican markets is queso de tuna, prickly pear cheese, made by boiling the seedless pulp for as long as 8 hours and then allowing it to cool without crystallizing. It hardens into a brownish mass, which is then cut into square bricks for sale (Nobel 1994,48). Finally, one may occasionally find colonche, a drink made from boiled fruit pulp and slowly fermented. It is usually allowed to ferment for about 20 days, "growing stronger with age" (Nickerson 1929,70).

The American plant breeder Luther Burbank developed many cultivars of Opuntiaficus-indica, popularizing the plant in the first part of the twentieth century (Benson 1982, 223-236). Despite his efforts and, at times, controversial advertising, the products of O. ficus-indica have continued to be used primarily by the Hispanic population, though many Anglos use the plant, especially when preparing popular Mexican foods. Many supermarkets in the southwestern United States carry both fruits and young stem joints.

The significance of peyote, the San Pedro cactus, saguaro, and the Indian fig cactus to humans is great, but many other members of the Cactaceae have been used and continue to be important to people, especially to those living in arid and semiarid regions of the New World. The best way to understand the significance of these other cacti is to consider their uses as food, medicine, in ceremonies and religion, as sources of dyes, in horti-

culture, their nuisance as weeds, and their uses for a variety of other purposes, especially by Native Americans.

Continue reading here: Cacti as Food

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