Wednesday, June 17, 2015

From Texas to Tuscany

Prickly pear cactus in the Vatican gardens
I’ve been in Italy for over three weeks now, away from everything I know and love, away from home. This is why every time I come by a cactus plant, whether it be on the street in Assisi or the recently created succulent rock wall of the Vatican Gardens, I feel a little nostalgic. Every time I think of the cactuses of Texas, and every time I am reminded about how connected the world is. Despite being thousands of miles apart, both Texas and Tuscany serve as home for these comely, unusual plants.
            After learning more about these eye-catching organisms, specifically the “prickly pear” type, otherwise known as “Fichi D'India” in Italian, I have found that the kind I am constantly drawn repeatedly to come from genus Opuntia in the cactus family, Cactaceae. They are native to the Americas but were later introduced to the Mediterranean part of Europe. They are named Fichi D’India, or “Indian Fig” translated into English, because they were first discovered in what Christopher Columbus thought was India, which later was of course confirmed as a new continent entirely, America. This type of cactus usually has two different kinds of spines, large smooth spikes as well as hair-like spines that will easily detach. The hair-like spines, called glochids, look soft and touchable, but are the exact opposite. They penetrate skin effortlessly and must be handled with great care.

Prickly pear flowers in the Vatican gardens
It is sometimes hard to differentiate between specific species due to their high wild hybridization. For this reason, they are not favored among cacti growers, but are bread for ornamental and fruiting purposes nonetheless. Their flowers can range from yellow to pink to white and in between. These plants can also contain fleshy fruits (tunas), which are typically harvested and turned into jams or other commodities.
In southern Italy, they are wildly popular for their edible fruit and broad green leaves (paddles), especially in Sicily. In fact, Mexico is the first global producer, followed by none other than Italy itself. Apparently, they are of great importance in Italian cooking. They also used to serve as a healthy and hardybreakfast during grape season when grape-pickers might be feeling a little hungry and eat the grapes purposed solely for wine making. To this day, the tradition of eating the tunas for breakfast still stands. Not sure about you, but tuna for breakfast doesn't sound so appetizing to me. But then again, I'm from Texas. 

Kaylee Platz-Panico

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