One of the prominent players in the Southwest Native Garden is the Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia littoralis). One of many different kinds of cactus seen throughout the Chaparral, it is a valuable part of the wildlife garden, offering both food and refuge to wildlife. Bees enjoy the bright yellow cactus blossoms, as do hummingbirds. Birds scatter cactus seeds and make nests in its pads. Spiders spin elaborate webs between the pads and trunks. And coyotes eat the fruit of the cactus called “tuna” or “nopales” when they are ripened to a deep red-orange color. Prickly Pear is a whole ecosystem unto itself.
An interesting note about Prickly Pear blossoms, they have what are called “thigmotactic anthers” which, when touched, curl over and deposit pollen. You can observe this yourself by poking your finger into the flower.
People can also enjoy eating the Tuna of Prickly Pear, once you get past all the spines, that is. They taste something like Persimmon with a similar color & texture.. a yummy, fresh dessert that I have often enjoyed after a dinner of Napolitos… that is cooked cactus pads! Yes, the pads are edible, too.
Besides being edible, Prickly Pear provide refuge for small animals. Prickly Pear Cactus make excellent barrier plants and can be planted in hedgerows at the edge of your property. No one will attempt to cross over, past their long spines. Prickly Pear also have a second set of tiny spines that get into your skin and are very hard to get out. This makes them hard to handle, but the perfect barrier plant! Ground squirrels use this to their advantage, providing further protection as they find refuge digging tunnels between the trunks of the big thorny cactus.
But, Prickly Pear has a predator: a scale insect called Cochineal. On the flat fleshy cactus pads (cladodes), Cochineal looks like some sort of white mold. But if you spray it with a hose to try to wash it off, that mold begins to bleed, a deep crimson. What’s this? One time, to my big surprise, I watched as a Cochineal scale insect got up and “walked away” to avoid the spray of my hose! Um.. mold does not walk!
Cochineal is a parasite, living off the nutrients of the sap from the Opuntia cactus. It produces “carminic acid” to keep other insects away. That’s where the red “blood” comes from, the Cochineal’s body.
This crimson “blood” was used as a dye by the Indians, even as far back as the days of the Aztecs. It was later sought after by Europeans to make rich crimson-colored robes. Believe it or not, the carminic acid of the Cochineal is still used as a natural dye and for food coloring, with Peru taking the lead in Prickly Pear farming for the insects. The acid is extracted from the insect’s body & aluminum salt is added to make the dye.
The Cochineal cannot be killed by pesticides, as farmers growing Prickly Pear discovered. But there is a Horticultural Oil that you can apply, which works well and is considered an organic option.
When I moved to my hillside home in the chaparral, I had a huge stand of cactus near a rock wall. One year, it was especially dry and the large stand of mature Prickly Pear Cactus became infested with the scale insects, Cochineal. Once established, Cochineal can decimate an entire stand of Prickly Pears even if they have been growing for many years, as was the case in my yard. Perhaps part of their purpose is to ‘put the brakes on’ the unchecked spread of Prickly Pear’s large colonies.
Interestingly, as the Prickly Pear stand died back, California Black Walnut trees (Juglans californica) began to take hold. These are California native trees and endemic mast trees, providing a food source for squirrels. Over the years since, the trees have grown into a forest, such that you can’t tell Prickly Pear was once there. Walnut trees are poisonous to some other plants. This gives them a chance to establish their territory and make sure they get enough sun and water.
It is so interesting to watch how Nature takes over, left to its own devices. One of the advantages to having the same native garden over so many years, is being able to observe the changes that time & weather bring to the land and its wildlife. I can now delight in the squirrel antics, watching them as they jump from tree to tree, foraging for walnuts, and listen to them chatter from the canopy over my garden. New groves of Prickly Pear Cactus have since grown up in other parts of my hillside, away from the Walnut trees, and all is well. Thanks to the invasion of the scale insects during an especially dry year, I was able to observe this transformation in part of my garden from cactus ecosystem to the ecosystem of native walnut trees.
Everyone seems to be able to co-exist in the Wildlife Garden. We know there will be many changes going forward with weather playing a prominent role. Nature reminds us: There is only one constant, and that is change.
About Kathy Vilim
Lifelong lover of nature.. I enjoy writing about what I see around me & photographing it. I garden in Southern California where I have lived many years and have enjoyed all of them. Happy to share tips on native gardening and lessons learned, as well as critters met on my Blog: http://nativegardener.blogspot.com. Follow @nativegardener on twitter!
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