Over the years, the Texas State Legislature has designated 72 official state symbols. Some, like the bluebonnet, are better known than others. In 1995, our esteemed lawmakers designated the prickly pear cactus the official state plant. I’m glad they did. There is just something about the resilient prickly pear cactus that has Texas written all over it.
As a South Texas boy, I grew up in the land of prickly pear cactus. My big backyard playground was thick with prickly pear and mesquite growing out of barren hard-packed dirt. I learned early on how painful it can be to rub up against a cactus plant.
I also have vivid memories of my uncle burning the thorns off of cactus plants on his Duval County ranch so that his cattle would have something to eat. He referred to this process as chamuscar which means to singe. Prickly pear cactus was an abundant food source for the cattle on his ranch. With that in mind, here are five interesting facts about our Texas-tough State plant.
1. Cactus has a Greek root.
The deep red fruit that adorns the prickly pear is referred to as tuna. This fruit is edible — but first be sure to burn off the fine and barely visible barbed spines lest they get lodged in your throat. The green pads are considered a vegetable and are also edible. My mother used to harvest these pads in late spring and early summer and then would dice and cook them. Most of the kids I grew up with had eaten nopalitos, a term derived from the Spanish word nopal which means cactus.
3. Those green things that look like leaves and not leaves!
The flat, fleshy pads of the prickly pear look like leaves but are actually modified branches. These branches serve several functions, including water storage, photosynthesis, and flower production. The large spines that grow on these flat branches are modified leaves that harden as they age.
Some species of prickly pear have clusters of fine, barbed spines called glochids. These grow at the base of the large spines. They are hard to see and even harder to remove once they get lodged in the skin. So, be careful. There is a legend that the coyote brushes the spines off the fruit of the prickly pear with its tail before eating it. This practice is not recommended for humans!
4. The prickly pear pharmacy.
Native Americans discovered more than a food source in the prickly pear cactus. These resourceful early inhabitants discovered a veritable pharmacy in the prickly plant. The prickly pear cactus has been used to treat stomach problems, cuts and bruises, sunburn, constipation, cold symptoms, and even diabetes. One folk remedy involves heating the pads and placing them on a cold sufferer’s chest to relieve congestion.
5. The prickly pear is Texas tough.
Texas is home to about 20 species of prickly pear that can be found throughout the Lone Star State — from the thick piney woods to the rugged Chihuahuan Desert. The resolution that designated the prickly pear cactus the official plant of Texas declares: “Rugged, versatile, and beautiful, the prickly pear cactus has made numerous contributions to the landscape, cuisine, and character of the Lone Star State, and its unusual status as both a vegetable and a fruit make it singularly qualified to represent the indomitable and unique Texas spirit as an official state symbol.”