Fig of India
The prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) is a shrub that can reach even 3.5 meters in height and width. It has a very particular and recognizable shape: the stems are in fact flat and wide and are commonly called shovels, although their real scientific name is cladodes.
Their surface is mostly smooth, of a glaucous green colour, but dotted with pads (the areoles) from where waxed thorns start. Next to it there are other smaller ones, at most a few millimetres long, which have the purpose of retaining the ambient humidity. It is necessary to pay particular attention to them, because they detach with extreme facility, sticking deeply in the skin. In fact, they are also a means of defence.
The opuntias constitute one of the most consistent groups within the Cactaceae: up to 300 species have been classified. They come mostly from areas characterized by strong aridity. This does not mean, however, that they cannot withstand low temperatures. In the American continent (where they originate) they can be found in the wild even in mountainous areas, particularly in the Andes have adapted to survival even above 5000 meters above sea level.
We must also keep in mind that even in desert environments, cold is a very important characteristic. There are in fact environments in which the temperature range between night and day is considerable.
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Growing the prickly pear
Growing the prickly pear is not difficult at all and can be done by everyone.
IL FICO D’INDIA IN BREVE
Height at maturity
Up to 5 m
Width at maturity
Up to 3 m
Average (generally down to -6°C)
Any, but well drained
1/3 garden land, 1/3 sand, 1/3 compost
Place these opuntias in full sun; they can bear temperatures close to -10°C, in places with cold winters it is best to place the plants in a sheltered place, close to a wall or under a canopy; during the coldest months of the year they may need to be sheltered with tnt. The opuntias can be cultivated also in container, in way to be able to bring them to the shelter from the cold in autumn, in this case they maintain of contained dimensions and hardly fructify.
The prickly pear is very sensitive to the cold. It can only be grown in the open ground where winter temperatures do not fall below -10C. Elsewhere, it should be placed in a large pot. The exposure should be as sunny as possible.
If we live in a particularly cold area, we can try to include varieties such as opuntia fragilis or humifosa, which have proved to be rather resistant to low temperatures. In this case it is very important to place them in an illuminated area for a good part of the day, in particular during the winter). Adequate substrate should also be provided to avoid problems with stagnant moisture at root and collar level.
Flowers and fruits of the prickly pear
The flowering of the prickly pear takes place in summer or throughout the year (in areas where temperatures are mostly constant or mild) and is quite short, but of great beauty. The petals are very thin and pearly and can be declined in shades of yellow, orange and red, depending on the variety. At the centre is a large number of stamens, equally decorative.
Then, from these, the fruits develop, which are also extremely coloured: they can be found in yellow, orange, red, purple and even white. They line up on the edge of the blades.
Harvesting generally takes place between July and September. In areas with a more favourable climate, fruiting can also take place in three successive waves.
The flesh ranges from yellow to fuchsia red-pink, surrounded by large black seeds.
But it is not the only edible part. So-called shovels can also be consumed if desired. In Central America they are also used for the production of liqueurs.
As we have said, the most common cultivars in Italy are from Mexico. In our country (and in the whole North of Africa), however, it has become a very frequent crop. Prickly Pears are now the identification of many landscapes, especially Sicily, the coast of Campania, Puglia and Sardinia. However, they can also be found in the north, particularly on the Riviera Ligure di Ponente.
The young plants are to be watered sporadically at least once a month from March to October, the plants now in place for some time usually settle for the rains, although they may need watering in case of very prolonged drought.
To obtain good results in pots it is important to wait for the soil to always dry completely before returning to administer water. In general, from spring to autumn, it is advisable to distribute plenty of water once or twice a week (depending on the temperature).
Plants sheltered indoors during the winter months should receive water on average every 30 days.
The individuals in the open land, however, do not need water interventions, especially if they have been inserted long ago and are completely free.
IL CALENDARIO DEL FICO D’IN DIA
Propagation by cutting
From spring to summer, on rainy days
Flowering in the Centre-North
Flowering in the South
From spring to autumn
Collection at the Centre-North
From July to September
Harvesting in the South
From the end of spring to the end of autumn
It adapts without any problems to any soil, provided it is well drained and sandy; it does not like excessively rich and humid soils.
In the open land the prickly pear adapts well to many different conditions. It is only necessary to avoid soils that are too clayey and asphyxiated. Water stagnation could cause root rot.
Apart from this, it will adapt very well to any other condition, even if the area is very poor and dry.
The ideal substrate for containers must be rather drained. Soil for sale specifically for succulent plants is suitable. However, we can create the compost ourselves by mixing 1/3 of garden soil, 1/3 of river sand and 1/3 of compost. If it is still heavy you can add a handful of perlite or agricultural vermiculite. At the bottom it is extremely important to create a thick draining layer with gravel or other suitable material.
Multiplication and propagation
It usually happens by cutting, it is sufficient to plant an entire segment of stem, after having dried it for 12-15 hours, these plants root very easily.
The fastest way to propagate the prickly pear is undoubtedly the cuttings. We proceed in spring or summer by taking a shovel of at least two years. Let the cut dry for at least one week (dusting with a proto duct against rottenness and cryptogams. We can then insert it in a pot burying it for ¾, with substratum as described above. Let’s keep everything dry, with an average temperature of about 13°. Rooting will take about three weeks.
Pests and diseases
Opuntia is very susceptible to attack by the cochineal, in fact it has long been used to produce the food coloring extracted from the cochineals.
If the infestation is minor, the parasites can be removed using alcohol and a cotton swab. Otherwise, specific products can be used (generally white oil activated by a systemic insecticide).
History of the fig tree of India
The prickly pear is native to Mexico, but its cultivation immediately became very popular in the Mediterranean basin by virtue of the vitamin content in its fruits.
Its name refers to the famous mistake of Christopher Columbus who, arriving in the New Continent, believed he had arrived in Asia.
He immediately understood that the plant (especially the shovels) could be of great interest as food during long ocean crossings. The high content of vitamin C and its preservability could in fact save many sailors from the onset of scurvy.
In this way some parts arrived in Europe and quickly the plant spread through all the ports of the Mediterranean.
The cultivation of the opuntias was, and still is, tied to one of its most frequent parasites: the cochineal.
In some areas (e.g. the Canary Islands) they are cultivated precisely in order to make them colonize by these insects, useful then to produce a pigment of a bright red color, used in many foods (eg in alkermes), in cosmetics, in the textile industry.
Indian fig in winter
The potted plants, in almost all of the North, need to be withdrawn. Generally speaking, it is best to proceed when the minimum temperatures are around 10°C. The room suitable for wintering should be bright, but not too hot. The ideal temperature is from 10 to 15°C maximum. Therefore, internal staircases are ideal, rooms that are not widely used and heated or a cold greenhouse that is well exposed.
When the summer returns, the plants should be placed outside again, but gradually exposed to intense heat and light.
Repotting of prickly pears
The plants are to be repotted quite frequently, also every year. The growth, especially of the root system, is in fact very fast and a too small container could cause rottenness.
We proceed whenever we realize that the plant is slowing down in its growth.
The best time of year is spring. We also take this opportunity to check the condition of the roots, possibly eliminating damaged or exhausted parts.
Harvesting and preservation of fruits
The fruits can be harvested from when they take on a beautiful full colouring. They are stored in the vegetable compartment, in the refrigerator. It is good to eat them within four days.
Fig d’India – Opuntia: Variety of fig d’India
Here are the most common species and some suggested for those who live in areas with cold winters.
Types of opuntia
Species and varieties
Flowers and fruits
It grows to 3.5 meters in height and width.
The blades are oval, about 40 cm long.
The flowers are large, yellow or orange, like the fruits
Opuntia ficus-indica var.
Similar to the previous one
Yellow flowers and red fruits
More rustic Opuntie
Opuntia engelmanii var lindheimeri
Up to 1 meter high
Orange flowers and red fruits
Medium-sized, with round blades
Yellow flowers at the end of spring, yellowish fruits
Watch the Video
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