Wednesday, February 13, 2013


 A ramble on Prickly Pears!

Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 tells us there is a “Time for Everything”…and without sounding flippant, in the Eastern Cape, now is the ‘Time for Prickly Pears’. And this many thorned fruit is important to hundreds of people who wake up early every morning in January, February and into March each year to harvest the fruit, wipe on the grass to remove the thorns from the fruit, and heap them into containers of all sorts. The day is then spent on the side of the road…holding up the fruit to passing motorists in the hope that they will stop and buy some of the fruits of their labours. For all…this is an important source of income.

Prickly Pears flower in late Spring

Wire hooks are used to harvest the fruit

A morning snack


Picking the bush which is used to rub the thorns off the fruit


Rubbing the thorns off

Hoping to make some sales

The fruit is full of tiny thorns which detach very easily from the fruit....but not human hands!! The white powdery substance is Cochineal referred to below.

Preparing for consumption...avoid the thorns!

Like all true cactus species, prickly pears are native only to the Western hemisphere; however, they have been introduced to other parts of the globe. Prickly pear species are found in abundance in Mexico, especially in the central and western regions. They are also found in the Western United States, in arid regions in the Northwest, throughout the mid and lower elevations of the Rocky Mountains such as in Colorado, where species such as Opuntia phaeacantha, Opuntia polyacantha and others become dominant, and especially in the desert Southwest. Prickly pears are also the only types of cactus found to grow natively far east of the Great Plains states”.

Thorns...fruit...and Cochineal

“The first introduction of prickly-pear into Australia can be definitely ascribed to Governor Philip and the earliest colonists in the year 1788. Brought from Brazil to Sydney, they remained in Sydney for 50 years, until they were brought to New South Wales to a farmer's garden in 1839. The farmer's wife gave cuttings to neighbours and friends, who planted it not only in their gardens but also as hedgerows. So began the Australian invasion that caused major ecological damage in the eastern states. They are also found in the Mediterranean region of Northern Africa, especially in the most northern nation of Africa, Tunisia, where they grow all over the countryside, and southern Europe, especially on the island nation of Malta, where they grow all over the islands, and can be found in enormous numbers in parts of South Africa, where it was introduced from South America.

Prickly Pears belong to the Family Cactaceae Genus Opuntia. The spread of the plant to Australia was a result of the insect Cochineal which hosts on the plant and is an important part of the dye industry.

The cochineal (/kɒtʃɨˈniːl/ koch-i-neel or /ˈkɒtʃɨniːl/ koch-i-neel; Dactylopius coccus) is a scale insect in the suborder Sternorrhyncha, from which the crimson-coloured dye carmine is derived. A primarily sessile parasite native to tropical and subtropical South America and Mexico, this insect lives on cacti in the genus Opuntia, feeding on plant moisture and nutrients.
The insect produces carminic acid that deters predation by other insects. Carminic acid, typically 17–24% of dried insects' weight, can be extracted from the body and eggs then mixed with aluminum or calcium salts to make carmine dye (also known as cochineal). Carmine is today primarily used as a food colouring and for cosmetics.”

Cochineal...showing where the dye is derived from.

Traditionally cochineal was used for colouring fabrics. During the colonial period, with the introduction of sheep to Latin America, the use of cochineal increased, as it provided the most intense colour and it set more firmly on woolen garments than on clothes made of materials of pre-Hispanic origin such as cotton, agave fibers and yucca fibers. In general, cochineal is more successful on protein-based animal fibres (including silk) than plant-based material. Once the European market discovered the qualities of this product, the demand for it increased dramatically. By the beginning of the seventeenth century it was traded internationally. Carmine became strong competition for other colourants such as madder root, kermes, Polish cochineal, brazilwood, and Tyrian purple, as they were used for dyeing the clothes of kings, nobles and the clergy. For the past several centuries it was the most important insect dye used in the production of hand-woven oriental rugs, almost completely displacing lac.It was also used for painting, handicrafts, and tapestries. Cochineal-coloured wool and cotton are still important materials for Mexican folk art and crafts.

The Dye Industry in the late 1700’s was controlled by Spain and Portugal and, according to some sources, the the reason that Governor Philip took it from Brazil to Australia was to create a supply of the source of this dye for England.

There are many theories as to how and why and when Prickly Pears arrived in South Africa. What we do know though, is that they have thrived in South Africa and are prevalent in most Provinces…not least the Eastern Cape.

There is no trace of Prickly Pears on Wolwekop....controlled by Elephants!

What is really interesting is how they have been completely eliminated in the Nyathi Concession (where River Bend Lodge is situated) by the Elephants. Anyone who has been to River Bend Lodge will recognize the photograph of the area around Wolwekop which was (until the introduction of Elephants) covered with Prickly Pears…..all eaten by the Elephants which ate the leaves and fruit whole!!! Thorns and all!!

Parma Ham and Prickly Pear 

We got to work in the Kitchen at River Bend and came up with this as a Starter with a very Local Flavour!!!

Links to sources.

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