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Named for its pearlike shape and size, this fruit comes from any of several varieties of cactus. Its prickly skin can range in color from green to purplish-red; its soft, porous flesh (scattered with black seeds) from light yellow-green to deep golden. Also called cactus pear, the prickly pear has a melonlike aroma and a sweet but rather bland flavor. It's extremely popular in Central and South America, the Mediterranean countries and southern Africa, and is slowly gaining favor in the United States and England.

Prickly pears are available in during the summer season and the locals can buy them at the markets or from the fruit and vegetables shops. Choose fruit that gives slightly to palm pressure. It should have a deep, even color. Ripen firm prickly pears at room temperature until soft. Store ripe fruit in the refrigerator for up to a week. Prickly pears are usually served cold, peeled and sectioned with the seeds removed.

The prickly pear is a very hardy plant that is also very resistant to fire. It grows and spreads quickly and with a vengeance, destroying whatever domestic vegetation is in its' path. In areas of Australia, India and South Africa, the prickly pear is a large threat to the ecological balance. The governments of these countries spend millions of dollars a year to control this "thorny" problem.

pearsThe best way to enjoy the prickly pear though, is to hold the fruit down with a fork. Using a sharp knife, cut off both ends of the fruit and make incisions lengthwise down the fruit thus making it easy to peel the fruit with your fingers. (See pictures below)

The aromatic, colorful fruit of the prickly pear is full of small seeds which can be eaten without any problem. The prickly pear is low in calories, is fairly high in proteins and is high in vitamin C. It is usually served with other fruit (banana, cantaloupe, kiwi) or eaten plain with a little lemon juice squeezed on it (and served very cold).

In some very high classed Parisian restaurants the fruit of the prickly pear is mixed in the blender with sugar and lemon, then strained to filter out the pits and frozen. It is served as a dessert with a little rum or vodka to customers with refined palates who seek out rare tastes.


There was a similar problem with the introduction of Prickly Pears into Australia which were brought to decorate gardens. Soon the plants "escaped" and without natural enemies, overran much of the country. To control the Prickly Pears a caterpillar that feeds off the plant was introduced and this successfully brought the numbers down. Scientists had to be careful, however, to choose a caterpillar that would not be harmful to plants and flowers native to Australia.

In Australia, a general term for any flat-stemmed cactus, is PRICKLY PEAR. Australia has no natural occurring cactus.

When Australia was first settled near Sydney in 1788, settlers bought with them several Prickly Pear plants, and some cochineal insects. These had been acquired in Rio de Janeiro, where a cochineal industry flourished. The captain in charge of these initial settlers required cochineal insects and the cactus as their food, in order to produce the red dye for his soldiers´┐Ż coats. Nevertheless, it does not seem to be likely that the cactus introduced on this occasion was Opuntia inermis, the plant which eventually caused so much economic strife to South East Queensland in particular. In various parts of Australia, several different species of introduced cactus became locally a serious problem. It is not known how Opuntia inermis came to be introduced; it may have been brought in as a botanical curiosity, a pot-plant in fact. We do know that it existed as early as 1839, in New South Wales.

By 1863, the Pear was established in Queensland, sometimes as hedges. In all probability it became a problem, and it was cut down; but Pear does not simply die when cut. Each plant, even individual leaves, or parts of leaves, can readily take root and grow. It can easily survive long periods of desiccation, before taking root.

In 1884, a Brisbane newspaper reported that the Pear was rapidly becoming established in scrub country on the Darling Downs. This refers to the country between Toowoomba and Chinchilla generally. By 1900, some 40 400 square km of country were affected. Following on from the great drought in 1902 the spread became more rapid.

The reason was that, natural grasses being scarce, starving cattle and sheep were being fed on the Pear. Cattle, in particular, thrived on the plant.

Additionally, native animals, notably the crow and Emu fed on the Pear fruit, and spread the seeds in their droppings. As a result, these animals were declared vermin, and a bounty was paid on the heads and eggs.

By 1920, an estimated 234 000 square km were infested. The problem peaked in 1925, by which time 264 000 square km were under the pest. This represents an area 75% of Japan, or 40% of the state of Texas, USA. Many large properties were abandoned.

The common method attempted for control was poisoning, but any reasonable control by the method sometimes cost twenty times the value of the land. As early as 1899, it was realised that some natural means of control was required, but of course, it was unlikely that such a device would occur naturally in Australia.

An 1920, the Australia Commonwealth Government set up an Organisation to investigate potent insect predators in the countries where various pears originated. Ultimately, an insect Cactoblastis was introduced from South America, and the results were spectacular. Eggs from the insect were placed on the pear plants throughout the country. The caterpillars hatched and hungrily fed on the pear, boring deep into the leaves.

The results were immediately apparent. The initial release of the insect was in 1926, and a concentrated general distribution was down in 1928-30. Between 1930 and 1932, a tremendous Cactoblastis population explosion occurred, resulting in the literal collapse of miles of Pear, the insects having reduced the plants to decayed pulp. By 1933, the last great primary stands of Pear were gone from Queensland. Complete control was affected by 1940. Some Pear does, of course, still exist, as do some numbers of the cactoblastis insects. The remaining pear is not considered to be a risk.


The Ecological study of the Prickly Pear on Malta indicates:

The Prickly Pear grows on all lithologies on Malta.

The Prickly Pear grows on any soil type on Malta.

The Prickly Pear can not tolerate saline soils resulting from sea spray near the coast.

Few Prickly Pears grow on the top of hills, probably the result of a lack of agricultural use of plant in such locations.

Very few Prickly Pears appeared to be "wild". The plants which showed no signs of cultivation were usually on abandoned terraces, thus indicating they were origionally cultivated by man.

The spread of the Prickly Pear on Malta is very limited. Where evidence of spreading was observed, the spreading was no greater than the leaf drop distance.

The Prickly Pear on Malta is well managed and under control.

The observed lack of spread of the Prickly Pear on Malta, when compared to the problems caused by it's introduction to Australia, is a significant finding. This finding prompted the development of a number of possible theories as to why the Prickly Pear is not causing an ecological problem on Malta:

Natural Pestation

Many of the plants observed were damaged with holes and depressions present in the pads. At some sites snails were found in these depressions, thus indicating pestation. However, the species of snail is not capable of producing the damage, which is more likely to have been caused by hail and frustrated farmers with shotguns.

Clay and Shallow Soils

Although found on all soil types, the Prickly Pear growth is stunted by clay and shallow soils. Thus the extensive shallow and clay soils of Malta maybe a limiting factor of the spread of the Prickly Pear.

Different varieties of Prickly Pear

The variety of Prickly Pear found on Malta is the spine less variety which could possibly spread less aggressively than the varieties found in Australia.

Weak Seedlings

The Prickly Pear seedlings are very weak in comparison to the hardy adult plants, requiring good conditions for the growth of seedlings. Thus the susceptibility of the seedlings may limit the spread of the plant where conditions do not favour growth.

Lack of Fauna

The distinct lack of birds and other animals on Malta could limit the spread of the Prickly Pear through the lack of such animals feeding on the fruit and then dispersing the seeds.

Human Control

The Prickly Pear is cultivated on Malta mainly to provide cheap windbreaks to protect the crops and soil. Therefore the Prickly Pear is mostly found on agricultural terraces where any unwanted spread of the plant is removed by farmers who need the land to grow crops.

The Prickly Pear on Malta is an alien invader but it is thought to have been present in the landscape for hundreds of years, thus being an Archeophyte. The general feeling of people on Malta is that the Prickly Pear is a natural part of the landscape. The Prickly Pear is well established in the ecology of the island, with it's architecture providing shelter for insects and lizards, and it seems not to pose any threat to native species. Overall this study shows that the introduction of an alien species can be disasterous in one part of the world but beneficial in another.



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