Is Prickly Pear a friend or foe?
When we talk about the Australian Prickly Pear, we get two responses: a blank stare, followed by 'huh?' or, 'that demonic cactus!'
Prickly Pear was brought to Australia to establish a cochineal dye industry. The Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) yields many benefits such as a natural dye, a glue, an ingredient in some paints, a hedge or fence plant and a source of food. Both the fruit and leaf (Cladode) are edible and it has been used a source of traditional medicine in native Mexican and American Indian medicines.
In early days, the low resource requirements of the crop was considered a benefit because it thrives in the Australian climate. This however led to infestation on prime agricultural lands, particularly in Queensland and New South Wales. That led to the loss of many family-run agricultural businesses, and several attempts to control infestations were employed.
This included biological controls such as the famous cactoblastis, physical removal and hazardous chemical control. They even used petrol to 'get rid of the damn things!'
Once controlled, they were classed as a 'weed of national significance' under the Conservation Act. That is, with the exception of species such as Opuntia ficus indica, which is legally commercially grown and sold by farms.
The crop has many benefits not well known in Australia, particularly for use on non-productive lands. With looming environmental problems such as desertification, it will become more valuable.
The leaves are sweet and delicious. Its brightly coloured white, orange and purple seasonal fruits have excellent nutritional properties and numerous health benefits. It has the potential to be a major export that could help reduce food insecurity. It could also provide income in drought-affected regions.
However due to misconceptions, prickly pear is mostly ignored by the public and commercial crops have even been vandalised. In Australian there has been minimal research into the prickly pear, particularly into its nutritional content and health benefits. Aside from the few commercial producers, the plant is mostly wasted.
At the University of Canberra, I am conducting clinical trials and investigating the antioxidant and bioactive contents in prickly pear fruit and leaves, and their health benefits. I'm also researching methods of food product development and preservation.
Response by: Caroline Gouws, PhD student, University of Canberra
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