Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus

Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus

The ancient Aztecs believed in many gods, and each god had a job. For example, the sun god brought up the sun. If the sun god was unhappy, he would refuse to bring out the sun and all the crops would die. The Aztecs spent an enormous amount of time making sure that all their gods were happy, time they could have spent gathering food or making needed goods.

The Aztecs solved that problem by assigned the job of keeping their many gods happy to their priests. The people still prayed. But it was the priests with the power to keep the gods happy. The priests believed the only way to keep so many gods happy all at once was to offer the gods human sacrifice. While some people collected food and made goods, Aztec warriors spent their time capturing people from neighboring tribes, people to give to the priests, so the priests would have someone to sacrifice besides Aztec children.

As you can imagine, this did not make the Aztecs popular with their neighbors. The other tribes in an area would even combine forces if that's what it took to rid their neighborhood of the awful Aztecs. Nobody wanted them around.

For about 200 years, the Aztecs were shoved from place to place, never welcome, always on the move.

But the Aztecs had a legend. They believed their god of sun and war had visited their priests long ago, and had promised the priests that one day a priest would spot an eagle, perched on a cactus, holding a snake. This would be the signal that they had found their home. This is where they were supposed to settle down and build a city. Part of the legend was that they were supposed to settle down peacefully, at least for a while, to give themselves times to build strength.

Believe it or not, one day, a priest saw an eagle, perched on a cactus, holding a snake in its mouth! He could not believe his eyes. He ran back to the Aztec camp to tell his people what he had seen. This happened in the Valley of Mexico, along the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco.

Legend says that the Aztec people hurried to the swampy shore of the lake to see this wonderful sight for themselves. As they watched, the cactus grew into an island. The Aztecs settled down on that island. They named the island Tenochtitlan, "The Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus".



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The wide range of cactus available for the home garden, provide a plant for every warm season situation.

The diminutive Beavertail prickly pear (Opuntia basilaris) has bluish gray pads that are slightly triangular in shape and carried on a 20 inch (51 cm.) tall frame that can spread 20 to 30 inches (51 to 76 cm.) wide.

The Indian fig prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) is a monster of a cactus that grows in a treelike habit. It bears an edible fruit and large orange or yellow flowers.

The types of prickly pear have numerous descriptive names, among them bunny ears (Opuntia microdasys) and cow’s tongue (Opuntia engelmannii).

Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus - garden

As kids we learned to keep away from it. Even our cats give it a wide berth. Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) thrives in sandy soil from New England to Florida, and places beyond. When unsuspecting admirers stoop down to touch the beautiful yellow or orange 3-inch flowers, they get “attacked” by large and small, almost invisible, thorns that can cause misery for hours. Or they may be bitten by bees visiting the flowers. Young children are most vulnerable tears flow from the first touch through thorn removal by tweezers.

Prickly pear flowers are so lovely they can lure you to your doom. Photo by Gretchen F. Coyle

Prickly pear seems to grow anywhere -- in salt marshes, sand dunes and sandy soil. It is drought tolerant, salt tolerant, spreads quickly and likes full sun. I first “discovered” prickly pear as a youngster exploring marshy, sandy islands along coastal New Jersey, quickly learning about the pitfalls. I still admire the bright yellow flowers and reddish purple fruits that form after the blossoms fall off.

A quarter century ago I brought a clump home to our garden in a bucket. It is still the bane of everyone’s existence, spreading out into a bed of its own. No one will touch the stuff, let alone try to weed or weed-whack it. The only way to get rid of prickly pear is to shovel clumps into heavy plastic yard bags and place them in the trash. Wearing heavy gloves can help, but I still end up with “invisible” thorns in my fingers.

Stories are told about the health benefits of this cactus. There are 3 edible parts -– the pad (nopal) is treated like a vegetable, the pear (tuna) is eaten like a fruit and the flower petals can be added to salads. Dealing with the nasty thorns is a definite drawback, but there are spineless varieties.

Plants can be bought or started by breaking off mature sections of pads from existing plants, drying them for a few days (hardening them off) and inserting them in sand. They will root in a few months. Water sparingly no fertilizer needed.

The pad (nopal) is treated like a vegetable, while the pear (tuna) is eaten like a fruit. Photo by Gretchen F. Coyle

Prickly pear cactus is thought to have been introduced into our country in the 19th century by cattlemen who used it as a barrier, in addition to winter forage. Today, the South American cactus moth has been steadily spreading northward and eradicating prickly pear cactus from some areas. It eats the inside of the pads, killing the plants. The moth, which arrived in Florida in 1989, is laying waste to prickly pears from South Carolina to Alabama. Federal officials are desperate to stop it before it reaches Texas and Mexico, which grows the cactus commercially for food.

Some gardeners consider prickly pear cactus a noxious weed that is almost invincible. Others covet it for its bright flowers and health benefits. All consider it a hazard to be respected.

Gretchen Coyle writes about Cereus cactus here. She’s the co-author of Inferno at Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle.

© 2014 Gretchen F. Coyle. Originally published in Florida Gardening, Aug / Sep 2014. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Prickly Pear Jelly

3½ cups cactus juice

1 bottle liquid pectin

Juice of 2 lemons

8 cups sugar

Using rubber gloves and tongs, pick ripe cactus pads and spray them with a hose to remove many of the thorns. Place on cutting board, remove any thorns you find and cut the ends off of the fruit. Then split and peel off the skin. Place fruit into pan and add water. Boil and simmer for about 10 minutes on low heat until soft. Then run through a jelly bag.

Mix the cactus juice with the lemon juice, then add the sugar very slowly. Bring to a rolling boil for 1 minute. Add pectin and bring to a rolling boil again for 1 minute.

Remove from stove and seal in sterilized jars according to directions. A water bath of ten minutes (boiling sealed jars) is recommended to get rid of bacteria.

Prickly Pear Cactus and its’ Cultural Significance

If you’ve been in the western U.S. along any freeway, you’ve probably been able to look on the sides of the road and see a reoccuring cactus. It has a typical cactus figure, the type that is most likely drawn when someone says to illustrate a cactus. Even though cacti come in all shapes and colors, there is an indication that the most commonly known cactus tends to look like the prickly pear cactus. Typical round, connected pads covered in spikes, usually green but sometimes red or purple or yellow. The Opuntia genus is commonly seen across the Americas, but mostly in Mexico and the western/south central United States. There are also many species of prickly pears that are endemic to the region in which they are from. Basically, they’re a common type of cactus that is more culturally relevant than you may think when speeding down I-5.

The iconic cactus that most people recognize actually has a lot of historical relevance to Mexico’s history, dating back centuries. The Aztecs, who were Nahuatl-speaking people who ruled most of the land that is now Mexico in the 14th through early 16th centuries, had an important myth relating to the famous cactus, one that led them to their new capital city. There was once a prophecy that, according to Huitzilopochtli, the Sun and War god, the Aztec people had to leave where they lived and search for a different place to build a city. This place was said to be where they would spot an eagle perched upon a prickly pear cactus, devouring a snake. Eventually they found the place where their future capital would be, and named it “Tenochtitlàn”, which translates to “place of the prickly pear cactus”. The ancient capital is now in the center of Mexico City, where the population around it has grown exponentially over the centuries.

If you ever look closely at the Mexican flag, you can spot the symbol of the prickly pear cactus, a symbol of hope and endurance for those who are familiar with its’ cultural significance. The image of the eagle with a snake in its’ mouth sitting on top of the cactus is seen in the middle of the flag, a recognition of the history that Mexico was created from. The Aztecs and other indigenous populations created the foundation of what Mexico has been built upon, and it is important to note the significance of the Aztec myth being a central focus of Mexican heritage seen on the flag.

The Aztecs would use the prickly pear cactus for everything that it could offer them. They used the actual paddles of the plant, called nopales, to make juice which was then used to treat burns. They also drank the juices to treat hepatitis. The nopales are also used in culinary dishes and frequently both appear in markets in Mexico and parts of the U.S.. They are said to be filled with vitamins and calcium, and people tend to recommend the new growth as the best ones to eat. This is probably due to the way that cacti push out their nutrients to their new growth, leaving the old growth tasteless and less appetizing. Opuntia blooms are spectacular to witness, and the fruit that they produce after this stage are delicious as well. Frequently used in Mexican food dishes as “tunas”, these fruits can be eaten raw or prepared with seasonings. The term “tuna” actually comes from the Haitian name for the plant. Nutritionally, the fruits of the cactus have been found to control diabetes. Both of these tend to be considered widely used in Mexican and Mexican-American diets and have significant social and cultural significance to many populations.

The Opuntia genus contains many different species, all known for their large paddles and bright fruits, but there is definitely more than what meets the eye. The significance of these cacti goes farther than the bright colors that they can be, and they have an interesting history and relevance to what has made Mexico what it is today, in a slight way. If the eagle had never found the prickly pear, the Aztec capital city would never have been where it was, which would change the whole landscape of modern day Mexico. Whenever you see the prickly pear cactus poking up from the dirt, ponder these thoughts of history, culture, and cuisine as you drive down the road.

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