Opuntias All Look the Same
It’s not really true, but it seems true.
One of my neighbors has a small planting of various kinds of Opuntia cacti at the end of his driveway, and at some point I should go down there and take pictures to show you how much Opuntias can differ from each other, but today I’m just talking about the ones on my property. Mine are boring, and they all look the same (to my grossly uneducated eye). And there are thousands of them.
They’re prickly pear cacti. I consider them a weed, by which I mean that they may grow wherever they want to in the wild part of the yard, but I’m constantly pulling up babies from the landscaped part near the house. If I didn’t, I’m absolutely convinced that they would be growing down the chimney and up through the plumbing in no time. Out in the wild part of the yard, you can pick any spot, anywhere, and before you walk ten feet in any direction you will be impaled at the knees (or higher!) by a prickly pear cactus. Guaranteed.
And they all look the same. Except in October.
As noted before, in the spring they all have flowers that may be orange or yellow, sometimes on the same plant, even on the same nopal, so you can’t tell them apart that way. In August, many of them look like this:
Those fruits are about the size of a golf ball or smaller. Early in the month of August, for Lughnasadh, they’ve turned deep purple and are ready for picking. Later, they lighten up with a bit of copper-orange color, like in the second picture. Here are some I picked last year to make jelly, at their purple-y best:
(Yes, that’s my little red wagon.) Inside, the pulp is deep red and very soft and very seedy, and tastes something like those cinnamon apple rings you have with ham, but with a little more astringent tinge. They’re an appetite stimulant, and I verified this myself: when I eat one, I’m hungrier afterwards than I was before. Those little dots on the fruits are clumps of glochids: tiny spines and they’re all over the fruits. I once watched a fox eat a half-dozen prickly pears off a cactus like this: it knocked the fruit off, then rubbed it on the ground to get the glochids off before eating it. Pretty clever! I burn them off over a candle with a pair of tongs, and still my fingers are full of spines the whole month of August.
And I noticed this while harvesting: about a quarter of the cacti had fruits that weren’t even close to being ripe. This year, I paid more attention, and I see that I have two different kinds of prickly pear. The second group ripens in late September.
By October, most of the little purple ones have been eaten — either taken in and juiced or else provided meals for the local wildlife, and so this is a nice second crop for all of us. These fruits are at least twice as big as the others, more the size of a small apple, and the pulp inside is pale green except next to the skin, where it’s pink. The pulp is more firm and the seeds are more contained, too, making it easier to scoop them out before trying to eat the fruit.
They’re more pinkish than purple, although you can see that later they get a bit of that copper color too. The flavor is sweet but more mild than the purple fruits. So to summarize, they’re a larger fruit and it’s less work to eat them, but the little purple ones taste better.
And unless they’re fruiting, they look exactly the same!
Now I’m letting you guess why I’m not out there digging my garden bed today, and I bet you got it in one. I know I’m supposed to be happy when it rains, and that if all goes according to the current models, this will be the last time it ever rains in the Southwest.
NOAA says our average October precipitation is 0.9″, and I actually got 4.6″, or four-and-a-half times normal, just this month (not counting what evaporated out of the tube before I got out there to check). I’m on track to get double the yearly total here. And Wednesday isn’t looking good right now. It’s really kinda creepy.
And this is what happens when the ground gets too soft:
Great, that barrel cactus fell right across the path. The path itself is having some erosion troubles too, and that’s not even the spot that gets washed out all the time. Thus am I entertained.
Too bad, though, because the whole purpose of barrel cacti is to support the local native bee population, and barrels are way less abundant than the Opuntias. Here’s a picture of our native black & white bee, on a different barrel:
I know, not a great picture of the bee (although the flower came out nice!).