Fat plants

Opuntia - Opuntia

Opuntia - Opuntia

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To the genus opuntia belong numerous species of cactus, all originating from South America; these are robust and vigorous plants, which over the centuries have been exported to many parts of the globe, where they are now part of the natural landscape, and in fact many believe that they are native plants; in fact we find large natural extensions of opuntie now also in Mexico and North America, in Spain, in Italy, in Greece, in Australia, in South Africa. In all these areas the opuntie have been imported centuries ago, and have by now become naturalized, becoming an integral part of the landscape; in fact, as happened with agaves and other South American plants, opuntie are often considered Mediterranean plants.
The most widespread species in the world is certainly opuntia ficus-indica, which produces precisely the so-called prickly pears, cylindrical fruits, yellow or red, sweet and juicy, well known in Italy; the wide diffusion of these plants is due precisely to the attempt to produce large quantities of prickly pears for human consumption; some species were instead exported, especially to Australia, to be used as thorny barriers, to contain livestock, or to ward off wild animals.
Another economic use of the opuntia exploits instead their most feared parasite: the cochineal.
All species of opuntia love climatic conditions that are particularly favorable for the life of scale insects, who particularly like to attack these plants, to suck the juice of their stems; from the cochineal an effective edible food coloring is extracted; in many regions of the globe the first cultivations of cochineal were implanted with the aim of extracting the precious dye, which is still used in many food preparations, such as candies, jams, fruit juices.

How they present themselves

These cacti are easy to recognize, their stems are divided into articles, the shape is varied: cylindrical, roundish, flattened, heart-shaped; the prickly pear has very large and flattened articles, which in Italian are also called shovels; each blade can reach a diameter of 100-120 cm, but there are species of all shapes and sizes, from the tiny opuntia fragilis, which does not exceed 10-12 cm in height, up to the gigantic opuntia echios, which become real trees, tall up to 5-6 meters, with a stubby shaft that brings numerous articles to form a kind of crown.
In addition to this particular shape of the stems, what characterizes the opuntie are also the thorns: most of the species present common sharp spines, in particular gathered around the areolas; in addition to these thorns, many species have stems covered with thin, hair-like spines, called glocides; the glocides are not straight and pointed, at the apex they have a sort of hook, they are very thin and come off easily from the plant, penetrating with their hook into the skin of the victim who came to touch them. In many species the glocides are gathered in bunches, so the meeting between them and our skin is often not a little unpleasant, even because they are very thin, so trying to extract them often causes them to break: in this way the apex of the glocide remains firmly anchored to the skin.
A home remedy for the encounter with glocides is to clean the skin with oil, which can sometimes make us expel most of the small spines.
The spines of the opuntiae may be of various colors, from pure white to gray, to the almost golden or bonzeo color of some species.

How they are cultivated

The opuntie require tricks very similar to most cacti: they like to be placed in a very sunny place, they prefer very well drained soils that do not retain humidity, they need watering only when the soil is dry, they prefer fertilizers based on potassium and low nitrogen. They fear the cochineal, the red spiders and the root rot.
We also remember that, as happens with other cactaceae, many species can also withstand quite rigid temperatures, as long as the soil remains dry; despite most of the species living in nature where the winter climate is quite mild, with minimum temperatures that never fall below 6-8 ° C, some species can easily be grown outdoors even in the presence of short frosts; provided you repair them from rain and humidity.
Many species, in the most suitable cultivation conditions, produce large red or yellow flowers, very decorative.

Opuntia - Opuntia: The Opuntia in herbal medicine

Opuntia plants are also used as medicinal plants, flowers are used in the form of tisanes, fruits, fresh or dried, and dry stems.
The fruits contain a high percentage of vitamin C, for this reason we recommend their consumption, there are also supplements based on vitamin c, consisting of dried pulp of prickly pears.
The pulp of the stems of some species of opuntia seems to contain alkaloids that decrease the absorption of sugars, in addition to decreasing the amount of sugar in the blood, from these opuntie useful supplements are extracted for diabetics and in the case of low-calorie diets.
The gel contained in the opuntie articles is also used in cosmetics.