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Opuntia ficus-indica: Indian fig Opuntia

The plant before you looks as though it consists entirely of large, fleshy leaves. In actual fact, these aren’t leaves, but flat, green stem segments. This shape is typical for the genus Opuntia. The actual leaves have withered into tiny, cylindrical structures that soon fall off, and can only be seen on young stem segments.

You may have seen this species of cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica, the Indian fig, on a trip to the Mediterranean region. This cactus is sometimes also called prickly pear. You may also have seen its fruit, sometimes sold as tunas, with its juicy, seed-filled flesh. The skin must be removed before eating, and very carefully; it’s covered with fine, stiff, barbed bristles that can easily break off and stick in your skin. Fortunately, cactus fruit sold in stores here have been cleaned ahead of time to remove the bristles. In Mexico, the young stem segments are peeled and eaten as a vegetable, known as nopales.

Opuntia ficus-indica is also cultivated as a host plant for the cochineal insect. This parasitic insect produces a carmine red pigment that is used to dye cloth and color lipstick.

Like the Agave, the prickly pear was imported to the Mediterranean region from the Americas. Today, it is cultivated in warm regions around the world, both for its fruit and as a decorative hedge plant. In South Africa and Australia, it has spread so successfully in the wild that is now a pest.

Audio file download
Opuntia ficus-indica: Indian fig Opuntia (MP3, 710 KB)

Audio production and copyright: Soundgarden Audioguidance GmbH
Text: Ehrentraud Bayer, Botanischer Garten München-Nymphenburg

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