Prickly pear - Kolymbari, north west Crete
West Crete Journal, August 2005

Prickly pear

Origin: Central and South America
Opuntia humifusa

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 eating insects).  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.