The prickly pear was brought to Spain by Christopher
Columbus and from there it spread quickly throughout the Mediterranean. It
is believed that the first ones in Crete were planted by the Venetians,
to protect their crops with the thorns of the plant. The prickly
pear can reach a height of 5 meters, and its large, dangerous thorns
severely punish any human or animal who approaches it without caution. The
large showy yellow blossoms host hordes of bees who come for a nectar
meal and leave with a coating of pollen.
Elsewhere in the Mediterranean there are varieties of prickly pears
without thorns, but not in Crete. These were used mainly for the purpose
of feeding fast multiplying insects known as "Kokkos o Varikos" (grain
When dried, these insects produced a costly natural colouring that
was used for dyeing silk and Easter eggs. Large quantities of
this colouring were also used in liquors and sweets.
The sweet and refreshing fruits ("tunas") ripen from the
end of June to the beginning of September. Ancient Mexicans and
their descendants still enjoy eating prickly pears fresh, usually in
salads. They also make a delicious marmalade with them and by
fermenting the juice, make potent wines.
Should you want to cut the ripe fruit, make sure you wear gloves and
use a knife to cut them ... but be cautious: prickly pear spines are
easy enough to avoid, but watch out for the glochids, those tiny hair-like
bristles that occur in little tufts ... they are barbed and treacherous! In
Crete, the fruits are sometimes sun-dried and stored in a cool dark
place in the house for Winter use.
The pads, called nopales, are a popular vegetable in Mexico
and Central America. They are usually cooked but can be eaten raw.
They taste a little like green beans.
Annual worldwide commercial production of prickly pear tunas is more
than twice that of strawberries, avocados, or apricots.