I was born in Liguria, so as a young child I was already familiar with the prickly pear. One can see many examples of it bordering the terraces of the countryside and giving an attractive show, but their role was more as ornamental plants than for their fruits. With the migration from the south of Calabrian and Sicilian cultivators in the 50s, it became difficult to find a place that did not have at least one. For this reason the prickly pear increased in Liguria.
In southern Italy, especially Sicily, there are plantations that specialise in the cultivation of this fruit. To force them to fruit at a time most convenient for the grower there is a practice known as “scozzolatura” which consists in removing the first fruits that sprout in June in order to induce the plants to make a new bud. With this method they can be harvested when you wish.
These plants mostly serve as fencing, growing in rows along the borders of properties; when they flower and fruit it is a spectacular sight.
Only after many years, when I began my adventure with cacti did I discover the enormous quantity of opuntia species that exist in the world.
It would be too long to list them and too difficult to describe them, so we will mention only the best known for those collectors who happen to have a plant in their own garden or terraces, or have the good fortune to live in a temperate climate.
In fact there are opuntias for every climate; they grow naturally in the Americas from Canada to the south ofArgentina.
Without going into great depth, we can generally say that of all the sub genea, the most common are:
PLATYOPUNTIA, plants formed with flat articulated segments, including the common prickly pear of commerce.
CYLINDROPUNTIA, with cylindrical segments.
TEPHROCACTUS, small plants that mostly live in the Andes. The stem is small and globular or it can be cylindrical. However they are mountain plants and therefore not always easy to add to a collection. One of the most beautiful collections of Tephrocactus can be admired in the garden of Les Cedres at St Jean Cap Ferrat. The best system remains to graft these plants onto a specimen of
Opuntia bergeriana is the one that on the western Ligurian Riviera is almost naturalised. There are examples along the point of Bordighera, they have Over and above being ornamental it was used in animal and human food products, but many years ago this plant succeeded in creating a certain commercial value through cultivating and breeding cochineal on them to produce red dye. This was much used in colouring such things as liquors, cold meats, cosmetics etc. Today this dye is made synthetically so the breeding programme of the cochineal has disappeared, except these bugs do continue to proliferate and create many problems for cactus growers.
Without a shadow of doubt the most popular commercial variety of opuntia is the O.microdasys especially in its yellow form and as the variety ‘albispina’.
Other varieties that do well in small pots are Santa rita with its lovely violet colour, and O. basilaris with its very striking flowers.
Of the bigger varieties one example that certainly produces great effect is O.robusta; it originates from central Mexico and is very resistant to all conditions.
I have seen one at the foot of the Pyrenees which coped with minus 16 degrees C.
and was truly splendid. One essential thing all cacti need is good drainage.
A feature of all opuntias is their thorns that in some species such as tunicata, bigelovii and leptocaulis are really painful, but with a little care and practice one can live very happily with these cacti.