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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Prickly Pear Sunday

Sunshine, deep blue skies and gentle westerly breezes embrace Eastern New Mexico’s slice of the Southern Great Plains. Red Flag fire warnings persist as extremely low humidity turns desiccated prairie flora into a tinder box. Rain remains a far-off memory. Forecast temperatures near 90°F will not encourage a spring vegetation boom. Any flora buds, shoots and leaves remain tentative.
Nevertheless some opuntia cacti start to push sparse crops of buds. The pads are still deflated. Their surface has a soft sheen and smooth, shallow furrows. With the first rains, these prairie sponges will gluttonously fill their depleted water storage tissues. Jack Rabbits, Pack Rats and Javelina eat the flesh of this prairie delicacy. Millions of people also use opuntia cacti pads or nopales as a food source. 
These prickly cacti have other human applications. In a centuries-old process, builders use prickly pear juice to strengthen adobe mortar. The recent restoration of the San Xavier Mission in Tucson AZ is a great example of exploiting these mortar stabilizing principles.

A stroll down the corridors of history reveals the unassuming cacti as an unlikely source of opulence and luxury. When Spaniards controlled the New World, they looted native populations of precious metals and stones. Their hunger for treasure needed a new paragon of wealth. It is Cochineal, a scale insect which feeds on opuntia cacti. The body fluids and eggs of the scale contain a bright crimson, foul substance to ward off predators. It is carminic acid. Common knowledge among native inhabitants of Central America, grinding up the insects produces a rich, red dye. In Europe, this “royal crimson” color is so rare it is reserved for kings. Today some hand-made textiles in certain Mexican localities still use carmine dyes. Health concerns over artificial additives make Carmine an alternative for food coloring and cosmetics.

© Ilija Lukić 2011

Cactus Palisade (Plains Prickly Pear)

Nopales Punto (Texas Prickly Pear)

Opuntia Bud (Plains Prickly Pear)

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