Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Indian-fig Pricklypear Cactus, OPUNTIA FICUS-INDICA

from the July 20, 2014 Newsletter issued from the Frio Canyon Nature Education Center in the valley of the Dry Frio River in northern Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, on the southern border of the Edwards Plateau, USA

In Mexico we've seen plenty of the thornless, highly edible Indian-Fig Pricklypear cactus, also known as the Nopal Cactus if you're thinking of eating the green pads, and Tuna Cactus if you have in mind eating the spherical fruits, called tunas. It's Opuntia ficus-indica and our page profiling a tree-like individual in the Yucatan is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/nopal.htm.

Behind the red cabin the valley of the Dry Frio River where I lived my first winter here, there was another edible, spineless pricklypear species, Opuntia ellisiana, in these parts often confused with Indian-Fig Pricklypear. It's profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/no-spine.htm.

I'd supposed that here in southwestern Texas we were too far north for the Indian-Fig to be cultivated, but this week along a backstreet in Uvalde, which is 35 miles south of us and situated on the Coastal Plain at a lower elevation than the Dry Frio valley, and therefore somewhat warmer throughout the year, a real Indian-Fig turned up robustly sprawling onto a weedy sidewalk, even bearing flowers, shown at the top of this page.

Not only yellow flowers but also small, tender pads were emerging, some of them perfect for plucking off, slicing, sautéing with onion, tomato and chili, sprinkling with lime juice, and eating. Below, you can see tender little pads emerging from a large mother-pad:

Indian-fig Pricklypear Cactus, OPUNTIA FICUS-INDICA, young, edible pads

That mother-pad displays broad, irregularly scalloped margins and a fanlike system of low ridges originating at its base unlike anything I've seen in Mexico. However, the inner pads are huge just like those I'm familiar with, as shown below:

Indian-fig Pricklypear Cactus, OPUNTIA FICUS-INDICA, large pad at base

To be absolutely sure I had a real Indian-Fig the flowers were examined. A side view of one appears below:

Indian-fig Pricklypear Cactus, OPUNTIA FICUS-INDICA, flower from side

A peep into the blossom's interior showing many pollen-producing stamens surrounding several yellow, finger-like stigma lobes in the center is shown below:

Indian-fig Pricklypear Cactus, OPUNTIA FICUS-INDICA, yellow stigma lobes

The yellow stigma lobes are significant. Stigma lobes of the other edible, spineless cactus we have, as you can see on the page linked to above, are pale green. Indian-Fig stigma lobes are yellow, exactly as in the picture. This is truly the real Indian-Fig thriving this far north.

It's not too surprising that Uvalde's Indian Fig should display features I've not seen before because there are lots of cultivars. The Flora of North America tells us that:

"This species probably originated through selection by native peoples of Mexico for spineless forms of Opuntia streptacantha (also 2n = 88) to ease the culturing and collection of cochineal scale insects for their red dye. Numerous cultivar names are known."

We've discussed cochineal dye at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/cochinea.htm.

So, current thought is that centuries ago indigenous Americans probably in south and/or central Mexico learned that by squishing certain little white, wingless insects feeding on the wild-growing, spine-possessing cactus Opuntia streptacantha, they could acquire a brilliantly red dye, which they wanted more of. As time passed people began cultivating the cactus to make dye gathering easier, and for the parent cactus stock naturally they chose the least spiny individuals they could find. Ultimately this led to a new, human-made, spineless cultivar, which eventually contributed lots of genetic material to the modern Indian-Fig.

However, there's not a direct line from wild Opuntia streptacantha to today's Indian-Fig. Gene sequencing analysis indicates that several different spiny pricklypear species have contributed to the Indian-Fig's genes. You might enjoy reading the whole story in a paper entitled "The origins of an important cactus crop, Opuntia ficus-indica (Cactaceae): new molecular evidence," in an online 2004 edition of the American Journal of Botany, archived at http://www.amjbot.org/content/91/11/1915.full.

What a pleasure meeting this old friend and being reminded of what a colorful history it has.