Friday, March 18, 2011

High Desert Plants & Wildlife: A Taos Unlimited Blog Series, Part 1

Two types of cacti are most prevalent in Northern New Mexico: Prickly Pear and Cholla. We will begin with the Prickly Pear.

Prickly Pear cacti represent about a dozen species of the Opuntia genus (Family Cactaceae) in the North American deserts. All have flat, fleshy pads that look like large leaves. The pads are actually modified branches or stems that serve several functions: water storage, photosynthesis and flower production.

The fruits of most Prickly Pear cactus are edible and sold in stores under the name "Tuna." Prickly Pear branches (the pads) are also cooked and eaten as a vegetable. They, too, are sold in stores under the name "Nopalito." Because of the glochids, great care is required when harvesting or preparing Prickly Pear cactus. Prickly Pear nectar is made with the juice and pulp of the fruits.

Most Prickly Pear cactus have yellow, red or purple flowers, even among the same species. They vary in height from less than a foot to 6 or 7 feet. Pads can vary in width, length, shape and color.

Prickly Pears are usually fast-growing, take little care, and many are very hardy. These beautiful cacti are famous for their distinct character and are standouts as specimens. Some Opuntias are miniatures that span only inches, and are essentially ground covers, while others are arborescent tree forms ranging up to 20 feet in height.

Like other cacti, most Prickly Pears have large spines (actually modified leaves) growing from tubercles (small, wart-like projections) on their stems. But members of the Opuntia genus are unique because of their clusters of fine, tiny, barbed spines called glochids. Found just above the cluster of regular spines, glochids are yellow or red in color and detach easily from the pads. Glochids are often difficult to see and more difficult to remove, once lodged in the skin.

There has been medical interest in the Prickly Pear plant. Some studies have shown that the pectin contained in the Prickly Pear pulp lowers levels of "bad" cholesterol while leaving "good" cholesterol levels unchanged. Another study found that the fibrous pectin in the fruit may lowers a diabetic’s need for insulin. Both fruits and pads of the Prickly Pear cactus are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fibers that help keep blood sugar stable. There are on going studies and at this point there are no proven results on humans.

Many types of Prickly Pear cactus can grow into dense, tangled structures. They are the most cold-tolerant of the cacti, extending into northern Canada.

Read more about Northern New Mexico Cactus on Taos Unlimited

No comments:

Post a Comment