Prickly Pear Cactus

This staple of the desert is a versatile gift of nature, but handle with care.

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Even though a prickly pear may be visibly spineless, the glochids on paddles and fruits remain just as nasty.

The best way to pick prickly pear is with a strong pair of metal salad/barbecue tongs with the tips wrapped in duct tape. This prevents cutting into the skin, which can introduce glochids to the inner flesh. In the kitchen use a propane torch and a non-taped pair of tongs to hold the piece of cactus, then brush the flame back and forth over the surface. You'll see both spines and glochids quickly burned away.

Prickly pears have for centuries been cultivated in Mexico. Various species were brought into villages and grown next to one another in home gardens. This produced widespread cross-pollination resulting in many hybrids of unknown origin. For this reason they are sold "as is," and to verify flower color, buy only when in bloom.

The most outstanding species or group of prickly pear is Opuntia ficus indica. This is the commercially harvested species that grows upright and arborescent at maturity. It will take some cold but will never achieve its true stature in the north or at high elevations. Frost is not the only enemy. Rainfall and cold weather can foster rot at the heart of the plant. Once this sets in it is nearly impossible to stop except in hot, dry weather.

There are many other cold hardy natives to choose from. Log on to www.desertusa.com and click on the Plants/Wildflowers for a superior list of prickly pears and their regional adaptations. A variety of online cactus nurseries can get you started with plants that match your climate.

For anyone who loves the traditional foods of the Southwest, or those exploring the more unconventional cuisine of Mexico, growing prickly pear is a must. In the process you'll discover that the true beauty of these plants is in their resilient nature so deeply admired it is pictured on the national seal of Mexico.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of "Weekend Gardening" on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. For more information, visit www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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