The prickly pear is one of the most versatile plants. Modern technology allows every aspect of the plant is used. The Americas are the natural home of the Opuntia species of cacti. This species was introduced into South Africa 300 years ago. Different species have followed. Initially, they were using them as fences or hedgerows to protect crops from wild animals. The plant spread throughout Southern Africa and is a common sight on many farms and towns.
They farmed the prickly pear in the Karoo as a hardy, sustainable cattle food. The Opuntia ficus-indica is dominant in South Africa. The Opuntia stricta is widespread in Zambia and other neighbouring countries.
Academic research has revealed the vast potential for the agricultural and energy sectors.
The cladodes (leaves) of the cactus are milled and are consumed by cattle. These cladodes are dried and milled to produce flour for human consumption. Research has seen 25% of cake flour replaced by cactus flour in baking.
A high-fibre and gluten-free cereal can be made when the cladode flour is mixed with sorghum meal. This flour is used as a thickening agent and emulsifier in mayonnaise.
Conversion into Biofuels
Barren Energy is an Australian company currently operating in South Africa. They are successfully converting grown cacti into LPG gas. The cacti grow in remote and dry areas. Arid land can be converted into 10MW power generators. This is an ideal energy solution and opportunity for mining in remote regions. Their pilot cactus-to-gas project is producing gas. This will be commercialised in due course.
Nutritional Value of the Prickly Pear
The fruit is only available for a short period in summer. They have one of the shortest shelf lives of any fruit. Companies have tried juicing the fruit but it does not travel well and is prone to easy fermentation. Easy fermentation will suit the production of alcoholic beverages.
Amazingly, the fruit contains high levels of vitamin C, magnesium, iron, calcium and other nutrients. It has between 6% and 14% sugars, in the form of glucose and fructose. The vitamin C content of cactus pears is higher than that of apples, grapes, pears or bananas.
Research is being conducted on the efficacy of the plant in treating diabetes. In rural areas, the plant is treating everything from high blood pressure to diabetes.
Prickly Pear Oil
Oil produced from its seed is becoming popular in cosmetic circles. Extracting the fruit from the seeds is lengthy and the seeds are cold-pressed to produce the oil. It takes half a ton of seed to produce one litre of seed oil. Seeds contain only five per cent oil. It is one of the most expensive oils and retails for about US$250/kg. The prickly pear is one of the most versatile plants.
Prickly Pear oil is antioxidant, regenerative, moisturising, soothing, and has anti-inflammatory properties. It calms inflammation and rehydrates skin.
The Opuntia ficus and stricta were seen as menaces that grew like weeds. Expensive eradication operations curtailed their spread. The humble cactus is one of the most versatile plants producing different income streams. The legislation does not limit the plant’s growth, but countries apply the CITES Convention differently. A CITES permit is required before any part of the plant, including the oil, is exported to some countries such as China.