Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Opuntia ficus-indica (Indian Fig Opuntia) is a species of cactus and a long-domesticated crop plant important in agricultural economies throughout arid and semiarid parts of the world. Indian Fig Opuntia is grown primarily as a fruit crop, but also for the vegetable nopales and other uses. Most culinary references to the "prickly pear" are referring to this species. The name "tuna" is also used for the fruit of this cactus, and for Opuntia in general (according to Alexander von Humboldt, it was a word of Haitian origin taken into the Spanish language around 1500).
Cacti are good crops for dry areas because they efficiently convert water into biomass. Opuntia ficus-indica, as the most widespread of the long-domesticated cactuses, is as economically important as corn and tequila agave in Mexico today. Because Opuntia species hybridize easily (much like oaks), the wild origin of Opuntia ficus-indica (or even whether it has a single origin) is hard to be certain about, but Opuntia was eaten by humans at least 9000 years before the present.
The most commercially valuable use for Opuntia ficus-indica today is for the large, sweet fruits, called tunas. Areas with significant tuna-growing cultivation include Mexico, Sicily and the coasts of Southern Italy, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Brazil, and northern Africa, as well as in Eritrea and Ethiopia where the fruit is called beles.
In Sicily, where the Prickly Pear Fruit is known as ficodinnia (the Italian name being fico d'India), the cactus grows wild and cultivated to heights of 12-16'. The fruits flower in three distinct colors, White, Yellow and Red. They first appear in early May through the early summer and ripen from August through October. The fruits are typically eaten, minus the thick outer skin, after chilling in a refrigerator for a few hours. They have a taste similar to a juicy extra sweet watermelon, very refreshing on a hot summer or fall day. The bright red/purple, or white/yellowish flesh contains many tiny hard seeds that are usually swallowed, but should be avoided by those who have GI problems with seeds.

In the center of Sicily, in the Provence of Enna, in a small village named Gagliano Castelferrata, a Prickly Pear flavored liqueur is produced called "Ficodi", flavored somewhat like a medicinal/aperetif. In the early 1900s, in the United States the Prickly Pear fruit was imported from Sicily and other Mediterranean countries to satisfy the growing population of immigrants arriving from Italy (Sicily)and Greece. The fruit lost its popularity during the mid 1950's and has become increasing in popularity recently in the late 1990s until today, due to the influx of Mexican immigrants. Recently the cattle industry of the Southwest United States has begun to cultivate Opuntia ficus-indica as a fresh source of feed for cattle. The cactus is grown both as a feed source and a boundary fence. Cattle avoid the sharp spines of the cactus and do not stray from an enclosed area of Opuntia ficus-indica. The nutrition available in the cactus pads, which is what the cows feed on, far surpasses that found in corn and other cattle feed. In addition to the food value, the moisture content virtually eliminates watering the cattle and the human effort in achieving that chore.
The cultivating of cactus requires only that it be planted and left to grow on its own, without fertilizer or watering. It is best grown on land useless for growing corn and other cattle feed stock. After a year or two, the pads are ready to eat and the fruit is ready to harvest if so desired. After each feeding the cactus is left to grow another meal which happens quite quickly in the desert lands of the Southwest. The cows can be moved to another cactus feeding area. The only effort to fed the cattle is to walk through the selected cactus feeding area with a propane backpack and torch. The torch burns the pads, slightly grilling the cactus pads and burning off the spines, then the cattle can feed without getting stuck with the cactus spines. The cows become accustomed to hearing the roar of the propane torch, which acts like a dinner bell for them.

Ficus-indica has various medicinal uses - including use as a hangover cure (see source at bottom of page). Recently, extracts for the cactus pear fruit has shown to possess antioxidative properties and can cause reduction of DNA damage in human peripheral lymphocytes. This extract has become a potential source of raw material for pharmaceutical and functional food industries. The shoots of O. ficus-indica have been shown to contain at least some mescaline.
The plant is considered a pest species in parts of the Mediterranean due to its ability to spread rapidly beyond the zones it was originally cultivated in. In Hebrew, the plant is referred to as "tzabar." This lead to the popular use of the term "Sabra" to refer to an Israeli-born Jew, alluding to the fruit and the people alike being tenacious and thorny (rough and masculine) on the outside but sweet and soft (delicate and sensitive) on the inside. Kishkashta a main character on a 1970-80's Israeli children's show, "Ma Pit'om," was a large, talking felt puppet of the Opuntia cactus.
Recent DNA analysis indicates that O. ficus-indica was domesticated from Opuntia species which are native to central Mexico. The Codex Mendoza, and other early sources, show Opuntia cladodes as well as cochineal dye (which needs cultivated Opuntia) in Aztec tribute rolls. The plant spread to many parts of the Americas in pre-Columbian times, and since Columbus, have spread to many parts of the world, especially the Mediterranean where they have become naturalized (and in fact were believed to be native by many). This spread was facilitated by the carrying of nopales on ships to prevent scurvy.
Pictures taken By Spera Gerardo at Pomarico (Italy), text by:


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Hello everyone and welcome in my photoblog. The photos are all taken in italy and specifically in basilicata. My small town called POMARICO is located in the province of Matera, ITALY. Good Vision! Dino.

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