By Erik Baard
In my youthful urbanite naïveté I used to view the idea of a flowering cactus as a discordant mixture of elements, a kind of vegetative platypus. Little did I know that June brings forth gorgeous cactus flowers in the dry spots of own archipelago. Take a moment to admire the prickly pear, or opuntia, flower above.
When photographer Klaus Schoenwiese and I stumbled across this example at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, I was quite surprised. I knew the species only as a backyard garden item, and had never seen it flower. Naturally, or quite the opposite, we’ve all seen plenty of paper flowers tackily glued to cacti of many species in decorative gardening stores.
The prickly pear is our city’s only indigenous cactus, but I won’t complain about a lack of choice. Until a few years ago I didn’t know we had any at all! Some uncharitably characterize it was a weed because of its hardiness and easy propagation (though because of that quality, but a happenstance encounter with it in the wild isn’t likely. Make your way to Jamaica Bay and hike a bit, or even kayak out to its islands.
Prickly pear cacti feed a wide array of birds (so don’t pluck them from the wild, please), and they are consumed with relish (and as relish) in cultures stretching from Mexico (where the plant is on the national flag) to Sicily. The fruit is delicious on its own and is made into jellies and drinks. In a nice self-perpetuating cycle, while the fruit is fermented into alcohol, research indicates that the skin (known as a source of anti-inflamatory compounds) might help cure hangovers. The young, flat leaves, or nopales (in Texas, “cactus paddles”), are served at breakfast for a daily start that’s rich in fiber and nutrients while lowering the glycemic effect. Another amusing circle completed by this species is that while it threatens to prick us with two kinds of spines, eating it reportedly improves platelet function. Enjoy a few recipes here and here. Or simply look for its red insect feeder’s possible contribution to your next imported bright red snack or garment.
When you’re eating a prickly pear, also consider its pedigree in scientific history. A youthful Charles Darwin was fascinated by his discovery that this cactus’ anthers, the bulbous tops to stamen, curl over to deposit pollen when touched.
If you fall hard for this yummy, curative, sustaining, beautiful, and surprising species, please consider bringing some of that verve to the New York Cactus and Succulent Society, which will next meet on June 19 at the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church at 351 E. 74th Street, before taking a break for July and August. Treasurer Richard Stone remarked to me that the organization is at this time quite elderly and not up for field trips to see our local wild cacti. Some young blood (with opuntia-enhanced platelet function?) with a willingness to organize an annual Prickly Pear Day (hiking, cuisine) might help perpetuate this important group.
And maybe a local organic farm might consider growing these locally?