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September, 2013

Wanted Dead or Alive: The Prickly Pear Gang
By Dennis Linden

In the last decade, both Cactus Pear and Nopales have enjoyed a steady increase in awareness and demand in the global marketplace – that is, with the exception of one very large continent down under.

Cactus Leaves (Nopales)

Nopales , often marketed as cactus leaves, have been a source of food and medicine in Mexico and South America since the days of the Aztecs. The traditional Mexican breakfast of Nopales con Huevos (cactus leaves w/ eggs) is as iconic in that country as ham ‘n eggs are here in the U.S. As a standalone vegetable, Nopales taste like a mix of green beans and bell peppers with a hint of lemon essence. When scraped of spines, the pad can be grilled whole or cut into fries or cubes for a quick, high-heat sauté.

The egg-shaped fruits that blossom at the top of each pad on the cactus plant – usually marketed as cactus pears or prickly pears -- have been found on 9,000-year-old cave walls depicted as an important foodstuff for primitive man. Today, the fruit is popular throughout South America, Mexico, the southwestern states and, oddly, Italy, as a key component in an array of desserts, drinks, jams and jellies, as well as being enjoyed as a refreshing hand fruit, once peeled.

Though the cactus plant only grew naturally in South America and Mexico, the popularity and cultivation of the plant for its fruit expanded into Europe when Columbus brought back a few plants to Spain on his first return trip from the New World. [Today, he would be stopped at the border and the plants confiscated!] Anyway, the fruit’s popularity spread quickly throughout southern Europe and, today, it is as popular in Italy as it is in its native Mexico. Interestingly, the largest commercial cactus pear farming operation (over 10,000 acres) is not in the Southwest or Mexico, but in Sicily.

The plant and its parts have even been utilized as both fencing and fodder for cattle during the early frontier days in the Southwest. Fast forward 150 years, cactus is currently being investigated as a potential treatment for diabetes because of its low glycemic characteristics. As a political symbol, Mexico’s Coat of Arms is a golden eagle perched on a Nopal cactus grasping a rattlesnake and the Nopal cactus is the official state plant of Texas.

Cactus Pears

In the last decade, both Cactus Pear and Nopales have enjoyed a steady increase in awareness and demand in the global marketplace – that is, with the exception of one very large continent down under. In Australia, the cactus plant has been considered a noxious weed for two centuries! At one point there was even a bounty on its head (or pads) for information leading to the plant’s total and complete eradication from that country. This dichotomy compared to the rest of the world can be blamed on the pride of the British and their precious red coats, literally.

It seems that in the l770s, at the height of British colonialism around the world, a sea captain in Her Majesty’s Navy arrived at Botany Bay (Australia) with a few bug-infested cactus plants that he hoped would lead to riches. The Australians have been trying to get rid of the invasive plant ever since.

The idea behind this bug infested plant delivery was the hope that Australia’s weather conditions might be conducive to developing a cochineal dye industry. The process starts with Cochineal insects, which are parasitic bugs that live on cacti, feeding on the plant’s moisture and nutrients. These insects were "harvested" (and squashed) in the production of a very effective and unique red dye. In fact, this particular shade of red became the symbol of British wealth and power globally through their famed red coats. Talk about brand recognition! The uniform became a noun, i.e. “the Red Coats are coming!” Unfortunately, Spain held a virtual monopoly on the supply of this prized dye, which bugged (no pun) the British to no end. The two countries enjoyed chilled relations at best; so Spain holding power over the coloring of the British uniform was intolerable.

The good news was that a thriving dye industry was established in Australia as the environment was very cactus-friendly. The bad news was that within 50 years “cactus-friendly” turned into an environmental nightmare as the invasive species spread like wildfire in a wind storm. Besides the dye it produced, settlers transported the Nopal cactus plant all over eastern Australia for potential use as an alternate food source for stock during dry times. It was also planted as hedges around homesteads. The hedges flourished and bore fruit; birds spread the seeds near and far. By the mid-1800s nothing that government or man tried seemed to affect the plants’ takeover of whole regions of the landscape, squeezing out all other plants and destroying animal habitat.

It was not until 1886 that the first Prickly Pear Destruction Act was passed. This Act placed obligations upon owners and occupiers of land to destroy the pear. It also provided for the appointment of inspectors to implement its provisions.

In 1901 the Queensland Government offered a reward of £5,000 for the discovery of a satisfactory method of destroying prickly pear. In today’s currency, that amount had the equivalent buying power of about $550,000. The reward was doubled in 1907! By 1912 the prickly pear situation in both New South Wales and Queensland was very serious, with more than 10 million acres infested. Methods of destruction used by the settlers included poisoning, digging up and burning, crushing with rollers drawn by horses or steers. The costs to eradicate a piece of land of its cacti often proved greater than the value of the land itself.

By 1920, the Australian prickly pear was completely out of control, infesting some 60 million acres of land. It was estimated at the time that the plant was spreading at the rate of one million acres per year. Nothing could stop its progress! Tremendous effort went into mechanical and chemical treatment programs, but the cactus just could not be contained.

It was not until the late 1920s that a solution to the problem eventually came, in the form of two types of caterpillars. One kind of caterpillar bore into the cactus and another attacked the plants from the outside, like a mosquito, sucking out the plant’s moisture. While the astounding spread of the prickly pear in eastern Australia was an amazing botanical phenomenon, the complete destruction of that country’s cactus population in just six years is still regarded by agriculturalists as the most spectacular example of successful biological weed control ever accomplished.

It should be mentioned that eventually German researchers came up with a synthetic dye that replaced the cactus as the only source for the Red Coat. Today, the cactus is still considered a noxious weed. So it’s a pretty good bet that, in Australia at least, one has a much better chance of starting the day with an order of ham ‘n eggs than Nopales con Huevos!