Nopales & Tuna Photos

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Economic Plant Photographs #19

Edible Stems & Fruits of the Cactaceae

Nopales & Tunas of the Indian Fig (Opuntia ficus-indica)

The Indian fig (Opuntia ficus-indica) is a large, thicket-forming prickly-pear native to the New World (possibly Mexico). There are numerous cultivated varieties, including some with spines and some without spines. Spineless cultivars were highly-prized for their fleshy, sweet fruits (berries) since prehistoric times, and were traded by native American people in Mexico and tropical America. It is called "nopales" in Mexico, and the cactus pads (stem segments) are sliced, cubed and cooked (boiled) like string beans.

Nopalitos, small strips from the cactus pads (stem segments) of Opuntia ficus-indica. The tender stem sections are cooked (boiled) like string beans, and are often cooked with eggs, meat, chiles and onions.

The fresh, many-seeded fruit is called "cactus apple" or "tuna," and it is eaten raw or made into drinks. One must be very careful when preparing the fruits because of minute, hair-like spines called glochids. The painful glochids can be removed from the fruits by scraping or singeing them with a flame, or by washing them thoroughly in a tub with a high pressure nozzle. Generally the ends of the fruits are severed transversely, and then the fruits are cut open lengthwise and the contents removed from the skin.

An Indian fig hybrid (Opuntia ficus-indica), showing a portion of the flattened stem segment (pad) and several fleshy, ripe fruits. Although not shown in photo, the top end of the fruits is covered with numerous hair-like spines (glochids) that can be very painful if they penetrate the hand, fingers or tongue. One must be very careful when handling the fruits.

During the 1700s and 1800s in California this cactus was planted near the Spanish missions and on the large Spanish ranchos. In addition to the cooked stems and sweet fruits, the cactus pads were used as a source of mucilaginous binding material for adobe bricks for the mission buildings. Over the centuries, this species has spread and cross pollinated with many native species of prickly pears, resulting in numerous intermediate forms (called hybrid swarms) throughout its range. In fact, some of the massive, thicket-forming, hybrid clones can even survive chaparral and grass fires in southern California, by regenerating from live stems in the center of the thickets where the fire is unable to penetrate. This complex species and its various cultivars and hybrids now grow throughout temperate and tropical regions of the world.

An Indian fig (Opuntia ficus-indica) in the Merriam Mountains of San Diego County, showing broad leaf segments (pads) bearing numerous ripe fruits in the fall. Large clumps, such as these, are common throughout California, many of which were introduced during the mission period of the 1700s and 1800s.

See Cochineal Insect On Prickly Pear Cactus

The Dragon Fruit (Hylocereus undatus)

Dragon fruits (Hylocereus undatus) in a marketplace in Thailand. This species is native to Central and South America, and is cultivated throughout tropical regions of the world.

Dragon fruits (Hylocereus undatus) in Thailand. This species is native to Central and South America, and is cultivated throughout tropical regions of the world.

Dragon fruit (Hylocereus undatus) at Quail Botanical Garden in Encinitas.

Freshly ripened dragon fruit (Hylocereus undatus).

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