Daily Archives: June 19, 2012

Tales From The Ranch: Introducing Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri

Anyone care to venture as to what this might be?

Opuntia pad skeleton

Okay, that’s a little lacking in context. How about this?

Opuntia skeleton detail

That’s not really fair. How about seeing a few of these with the flesh intact?

Old Opuntia

My in-laws’ ranch contains at least five distinct species of cactus, and the vast majority of it is the common prickly pear, in one form of Opuntia engelmannii or another. Out of those variations, Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri is the most common. As with other cacti, O. englemannii protects itself with spines. Unlike all other cacti, Opuntia cacti also bear specialized hairlike spines called glochids, which catch in the skin and break off.

(Some of you may be familiar with the story of Commander Nishino Kozo, who led the first Japanese attack on the US mainland during World War II. The popular account of the shelling of the Ellwood oil fields near Santa Barbara was due to Nishino’s first visit to the area while a freighter captain: he fell into a prickly pear cactus and was so humiliated by oil rig workers laughing at him over it that he swore revenge. Having done the same thing, and having to wait for the glochids to fall out, a very long and uncomfortable process, we should be glad that Commander Nishino didn’t go a lot further.)

Sadly, by the end of May, the gorgeous yellow blooms on O. englemannii are already long-gone, and the fruit won’t turn purple when ripe until about the beginning of October. In the meantime, May is a good time to examine the growing fruit. An average prickly pear can carry anywhere between one to 25 of these fruit, depending upon the prior season. Last year, for instance, the drought caused most of the prickly pear to drop their fruit early, leading to a corresponding lack of autumn food for cattle, deer, birds, coyotes, raccoons, and pigs. This spring, though, the rains were both abundant and frequent, so expect a bumper crop of “tuna” come Halloween.

Opuntia fruit

In the interim, because growing conditions are so amenable, the prickly pear take advantage of late spring to do most of their growing. The young pads give hints of their relations to other flowering plants, at least until the fleshy spikes turn into standard and glochid spines.

Opuntia growing a new pad
As far as growing Opuntia is concerned, the trick isn’t trying to keep it alive. It’s trying to kill it off. Prickly pears are notoriously forgiving in their growing conditions, only needing very good drainage and no chance of sitting in overly moist ground for more than a few days. Because the pads are mostly water (the pads are technically edible if peeled and cooked, with a consistency somewhere between cantaloupe and raw squash and a flavor best described as “acquired taste”), prickly pear can’t handle long periods of sub-freezing weather, so they need to be protected if grown in areas with significant amounts of snow and ice. Other than that, though, they’re nearly unstoppable. As Australians learned to their peril when prickly pear was introduced to the continent, if the cactus is burned or chopped down, it resprouts from the roots. If a single pad is left behind, no matter seemingly how mangled, it can and will root and grow into a whole new bush before too long. Worst of all, each prickly pear fruit is full of incredibly tough seeds, and they can and will sprout just about anywhere they land. When birds eat the fruit, seeds and all, those little chunks of aquarium gravel can end up sprouting in cliff faces, atop sandy washes, and even in places you wouldn’t expect.

Opuntia in a dead tree

Yes, that’s an O. englemannii growing in a tree. It’s been there for at least thirty years, and considering the slow rate of decay of most wood on the ranch, it may be there for another twenty before the stump finally snaps and throws it to the ground. After that, it’ll probably scatter pads and form a whole new clump. So far, that cactus has survived two major droughts, although last year’s drought almost got it, along with cattle nibblings, several bad blizzards, and the occasional overly enthusiastic deer hunter. At the rate it’s going, it’ll probably outlive all of us.