A Short Incomplete Hands-On History Of The Prickly Pear

If you find yourself anywhere near the center of old Marrakech, you won’t have to walk too far to find a cart piled high with prickly pear fruit, or cactus figs, known locally as el karmouss el hindi, or Indian figs. They taste like over-ripe watermelon, are rich in antioxidants and Vitamin C and their nearly-invisible spines will pierce the skin of anyone peeling them for the first time. Believe me.

While widely available in northern Africa, Opuntia (taxonomy) is originally from South America and was spread to Central and North America by animals who transported its seeds in their digestive tracts and later to Europe and north Africa by humans transporting them in boats.

They grow on large, relatively flat and fleshy cactus leaves whose plants thrive in dry sandy soils. Hardy and tolerant, they’ve managed to adapt well to some of the most inhospitable agricultural settings, particularly sunny deserts. The two images below were taken in a dry and rocky area near the village of Douar Ait Iktel in the high Atlas mountains, about 100 kilometers south of Marrakech.

The prickly pear plant, or Opuntia, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco The prickly pear plant, or Opuntia, in Morocco's Atlas Mountains

Like most cactus, they have long sharp spines, but it’s the smaller ones, called glochids, that are most irritating. Largely hidden in what appear to be patches of fuzz, they come off easily. And just as effortlessly lodge themselves into a person’s skin. It hurts. I swore off ever peeling one again.

Fortunately, in Marrakech (and elsewhere I’m sure) there are plenty of people willing to do the peeling for you. Like this man whose hands are pictured above and below who sold me a dozen for about fifty cents.

Long known for their healing properties —I’m convinced a minor overdose of the fruit cured me of a minor but annoying stomach problem— they’re also used as (edible) property line markers, a simple but tasty fruit juice and even wine.

I’ll be happy to try the latter so long as someone else is doing the stomping. And peeling. A few more shots of vendor in action next to his street cart in Marrakech.

Peeling a prickly pear at a fruit stand in Marrakech 2 Peeling a prickly pear at a fruit stand in Marrakech 3 Peeling a prickly pear at a fruit stand in Marrakech 4

And for the record: the lead photo, which serves as the 363rd straight Pic du Jour, was snapped on 15 Sep 2014.


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