In all these areas the opuntias were imported centuries ago, and have now become naturalized, becoming an integral part of the landscape; in fact, as happened with agaves and other South American plants, the opuntias are often considered Mediterranean plants.
The most widespread species in the world is surely opuntia ficus-indica, which produces precisely the so-called prickly pears, cylindrical fruits, yellow or red, sweet and juicy, well known in Italy; the wide diffusion of these plants is due precisely to the attempt to produce large quantities of prickly pears for human consumption; some species were instead exported, especially in Australia, to be used as thorny barriers, to contain livestock, or to drive away wild animals.
Another economical use of opuntia instead exploits their most feared parasite: the cochineal.
All the species of opuntia love particularly favourable climatic conditions for the life of the cochineals, which particularly love to attack these plants, for sucking the juice of their stems; from the cochineal an effective food colouring is extracted, completely edible; in many regions of the world, the first cultivations of cochineal were planted with the purpose, precisely, of extracting the precious colouring, which, all now, is utilized in many alimentary preparations, such as candies, jams, fruit juices.
What they look like
These cacti are easy to recognize, their stems are divided into articles, the shape is varied: cylindrical, roundish, flattened, heart-shaped; the prickly pear has very big and flattened articles, which in Italian are also called shovels; each shovel can reach the diameter of 100-120 cm, but there are species of every shape and size, from the tiny opuntia fragilis, which does not exceed the 10-12 cm of height, up to the mammoth opuntia echios, which become real trees, tall up to 5-6 metres, with a stocky stem which carries numerous articles forming a sort of foliage, tall up to 5-6 metres, with a stocky stem which carries numerous articles which form a sort of foliage.
In addition to this particular shape of the stems, what characterizes the opuntie are also the spines: most of the species have common sharp spines, in particular, united around the areoles; besides these spines, many species have the stems covered by thin spines, similar to hairs, called glocids; the glocids are not straight and pointed, at the apex they have a sort of hook, they are very thin and detach easily from the plant, penetrating with their hook in the skin of the unfortunate person coming to touch them.
In many species, the glocids are united in small bunches, therefore, the meeting between them and our skin is often not little unpleasant, also because they are very thin, therefore, trying to extract them, we often cause their rupture: in this way, the apex of the glocis remains firmly anchored to the skin.
A home remedy for the encounter with glocids is to cleanse the skin with oil, which sometimes manages to get us to expel most of the small spines.
The spines of the opuntias can be of various colours, from the candid white, to the grey, up to the almost golden colour or bonzeo of some species.
- genus which includes 10-12 species of columnar cacti originating in Central America. They are very long-lived and the centenarian specimens, in the wild, can reach remarkable dimensions, even close to the end of the …
- succulent plants originating in South America; they are very similar to the opuntias, but the stems are divided into segments of cylindrical or ovoid shape, while in the opuntias the segments are crushed…
- This genus is made up of fifty species of shrubs, flowering, which can reach two meters in height. Originally from the eastern side of the Andes, is a succulent plant to be grown in this area….
How they are grown
The opuntias require very similar devices to most cacti: they love to be placed in a well sunny place, they prefer very well drained soils, which do not retain humidity, they need watering only when the soil is well dry, they prefer fertilizations based on potassium and scarce nitrogen. They fear the cochineal, the red spiders and the radical rottenness.
We remind also that, as it happens for other cacti, many species can bear even quite rigid temperatures, provided the soil remains well dry; in spite of most of the species in the wild where the winter climate is quite mild, with lowest temperatures never going below the 6-8°C, some species can be easily cultivated in open air even in presence of short frosts; provided to shelter them from the rain and the humidity.
Many species, under the most suitable cultivation conditions, produce large red or yellow flowers, very decorative.
Opuntia – Opuntia: Opuntia in herbal medicine
The plants of opuntia are also utilized as medicinal plants, if their flowers are utilized, in the form of herbal teas, the fruits, fresh or dry, the dry stems.
The fruits contain a high percentage of vitamin c, for this reason we recommend the consumption, there are also supplements based on vitamin c, consisting of dried pulp of prickly pears.
The pulp of the stems of some species of opuntia seems to contain alkaloids that decrease the absorption of sugars, in addition to reducing the amount of sugar in the blood, these opuntie are extracted supplements useful for diabetics and in the case of low-calorie diets.
The gel contained in the opuntie articles is also used in cosmetics.
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