Prickly pear cactus: Indian figs from Mexico

Prickly pear cactus: They are called Fico D’India or Indian figs. But they come from Mexico and serve as eatable barbed wire and band-aid.

Fico d’India is a truly amazing plant. Not only because of its unpleasant prickly exterior that keeps intruders at bay. It also has the ability to draw water, vitamins and nutrition from half barren rock. And it cures everything from cuts to scurvy.

The spread of prickly pear in southern Europe is said to be Columbus’ fault. Presumably he brought cacti back from his visit to America, so plant was quite logically named fico d’India in Italian. Today 3-5 metre tall fichi d’india grow wild across most of southern Italy. The plant serves as fencing, and the varied colours of dusty blue-green leaves with yellow and orange flowers and red fruits looks terrific in the landscape.

 Prickly pear cactus

The prickly pear is incredibly easy to grow and frugal. In order to make a new plant, all you have to do is break off a fresh leaf and put it in the ground with a few stones for support. It does not need much water or soil. And if all other shrubs burn, which happens quite frequently, the fichi d’India will just hang its leaves, so that they resemble a waving mitten. Cute in a rather sad way.

The fruit tastes a bit like watermelon with a powershot of vitamin C. They are juicy and sweet and a nice addition to the breakfast table, if it had not been for their excessive content of indigestible, black seeds. Moreover you have the trouble of liberating the fruit from the thorny skin, which is a bit of a turn off.  Therefore I do not bother with preserving the fruit, even though a neighbour has demonstrated how it is done, by hanging leaves of fichi d’India out to dry in my trulli. The result did not look appetizing.

Still, I am impressed by the olive maestros’ trick of cutting the blades of a fico d’India in half and rubbing the juice into the wounds and scratches, they get on their hands and arms when pruning trees. Farmers claim it works better than Compeed, provided of course they do not puncture their thumbs on the long prickly spikes.

More on prickly pear cactus and other herbs and flowers

My guide to eating prickly pears

Prickly pear jam

Wild weeds and herbal medicine

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