Unusual & Old Fashioned Fruit Trees



Opuntias - Prickly Pears


The Opuntia family of Cacti includes around 200 species that grow almost everywhere on the globe, as far north as southern Canada and south to the tip of South America. They can grow up to giant 30 foot specimens, or they can be tiny miniature plants, but all will bear fruit of some sort, although some are obviously more suitable for eating than others. Plants like Bunnies Ears or Opuntia Microdasys are often sold in garden centres, as are many other varieties of Opuntia, because of their attractive soft white, almost furry looking spines. Others like the Indian Fig Cactus, or Opuntia Ficus Indica, have long been grown as regular crops, in warmer climates, for their harvest of tasty 2-3 inch fruit.

Not only are Opuntia plants prickly, but so are their fruits, hence the name of Prickly Pears. Fruits must be handled very carefully to remove the spines before it is possible to eat the soft flesh inside. There is an old family tale that came from my father who was in the Middle East in the Second World War. The soldiers of the time were always on the look out for food to supplement their meagre rations and they came across the Prickly Pear in full fruit. The fruit was too tempting, so my father selected one and wrapped it in his handkerchief so he could hold it and cut it down. Then he carefully unwrapped it, peeled it and ate it. Not thinking he simply put his handkerchief back in his pocket minus the prickly pear! He did not make that mistake again!

Opuntia’s are plants that do need warmth, but in fact dryness at certain times of the year is more important and if kept dry enough many varieties will tolerate quite low winter temperatures. Being dry over Winter also means keeping any snow from settling on them for long periods as well as keeping their roots dry. With milder Winters in the UK it should be possible to grow certain varieties to fruiting maturity, although the planting site would need to be carefully selected and prepared with bucket loads of grit added to the planting mix so that the plants can cope with our notoriously wet Winters and general climate.

Opuntias spread rampantly in perfect conditions and some varieties have even been banned in certain countries as they have become a pest. In Australia they went further and resorted to introducing a biological control in the form of the Cochineal Insect and the Cactoblastus Moth to control and reduce the numbers of naturalised plants.


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