Volume Number: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12 




The story of the spineless cactus has been briefly outlined in an earlier volume, and will be told in detail in a later one. There is no more important story to be told in connection with the record of my entire work, but it would not comport with the purpose of the present chapter to go into details as to the manner of development of this extraordinary plant. For the moment, we are concerned solely with the fruit of the cactus. In the present chapter it will be considered altogether from that standpoint. It should be explained at the outset, however, that whereas the improved forms of cactus pear about which we are speaking are grown on the spineless cactus plants, yet the fruit itself is not yet altogether without spicules. To remove the spines from the cactus slabs, as the "leaves" are commonly termed, was a task requiring somewhat less time than the removal of the smaller spines, and in particular of the very minute spicules, from the fruit. The reason for this is not that the spines of the fruit are more fixed and intrinsically more difficult of removal than those on the body of the plant itself, but merely that the work must progress more slowly because it is necessary to wait for a term of years, sometimes four or five, before the cactus plant comes to the fruiting age when grown from seed. Unfortunately it cannot be predicted from observation of the plant itself whether or not it will bear spiny fruit, so it is necessary to wait until the plant comes to fruiting age before its characteristics in this regard can be known. On the other hand, the character of the plant itself with regard to spine-bearing is revealed immediately when the first tiny shoots come up from the seed. So selection may be made at once among the company of seedlings, and by weeding out those that show any propensity to bear spines, and selecting those that are smooth. the experiment may go forward with relative rapidity. We know that we are making no mistake in our selection as regards the bearing of spines on the flattened stalks of the plant, because their character as to this is fixed from the outset, and is as definitely revealed when the plant is an inch high as it will be when it has attained mature growth. But, on the contrary, our selection made in the hope of securing plants that would bear spineless fruit of excellent quality may prove eventually to have been hopelessly faulty. After waiting three or four or five years we may discover that the plants on which our hopes had been chiefly based bear fruit as spiny as that borne by their ancestor whose habits we are attempting to enable the plant to shake off. Nevertheless, the work of removing the spines from the fruit of the cactus has progressed to a stage where the spicules are not only reduced in size, but are so loosely attached that they may be readily brushed from the fruit with a wisp of grass. And the plants under observation include many in which the tendency to drop the spicules from the fruit has advanced progressively, warranting the confident expectation that in the next generation there will be some that will present fruit altogether smooth. I have every expectation that when the plants of the most recent generation come to bearing this year, there will be some that produce fruit as smooth-skinned as the slabs of the mother plant itself. Should this prediction come true, my ideal of a spineless cactus bearing smooth-skinned fruit will at last be realized.


Meantime the endeavor to improve the size and quality of the cactus fruit has met with signal success. Generation after generation, the "pears" grown on the improved cactus plant have kept pace with the improvement of the plants themselves, until the different new varieties of cactus now bear fruits almost as varied in quality as the different varieties of apples, and perhaps rather more varied than the different varieties of cultivated pears. The fruit of the wild species of cactus varies widely in size and form, as well as in texture and flavor. My cultivated varieties, however, have been made to assume an almost uniform oval form. Or perhaps barrel-shaped would better describe the new cactus fruit. The individual fruits are three or four inches in length, and in some cases they weigh half a pound, although the average weight is considerably less than this. The skin of the fruit is readily removed by cutting off a thin slice at each end and making an incision the length of the fruit, and peeling the skin back. The pulp thus exposed is as juicy almost as the pulp of a watermelon, but much more compact, as well as sweeter and of better flavor. Pulp and skin are usually of about the same color; but the range of color is wide with the different varieties, varying from white through the shades of yellow, green, orange, pink, purple, crimson, and the most vivid blood-red to deep purple-almost black. In flavor there is also wide variation. The flavor is characteristic but difficult of description, as it does not bear close resemblance to the flavor of any familiar fruit. There is a wide range of variation as to degree of sweetness and exact flavor, just as there is between different varieties of apples or pears. The cactus pear further resembles the orchard fruits in that it may be eaten raw, or may be cooked or variously preserved. It is, in a word, an all-round table fruit, and as such constitutes a very important addition to the dietary. It is best eaten raw.


Not only are the individual fruits large and luscious, but they are produced in the most amazing profusion. Some of the seedlings begin to bear fruit the second year, but they do not come into full bearing-so that the fruit may be accurately appraised -until the third or fourth year. Then the fruit may be produced so abundantly as to check the growth of the plant. When the cactus has come to mature age, it puts forth such an abundance of fruit as sometimes almost to hide the slabs from which the fruit grows. Half a hundred individual fruits may grow on the edges or surface of a single slab. Looking across a field of cactus in full fruit, one sees a mass of fruit that almost hides the plant. It has been found that eighteen thousand pounds of fruit per acre is a common crop on the poorest soil. The possibilities of production on good soil and with fully matured plants of the perfected varieties are probably greater than those of any other fruit-producing plant whatever. It has been estimated that the product of a single acre may amount to the astounding quantity of one hundred tons. Whoever has seen a field of my giant cactus plants in full fruit will not be disposed to challenge the estimate. Analysis shows that the fruit contains about fourteen percent sugar together with a small amount of protein and fat. The precise apportionment of the constituents varies greatly with different varieties. It is possible to increase the sugar content and otherwise to vary the chemical composition of the fruit by breeding and selection, just as can be done with the apple, the peach, the plum, the sugar beet, and most other fruits and vegetables. The cactus fruits developed at Santa Rosa are of exceptional size and superior quality, but of course they do not constitute an absolutely new departure, for it is well-known that there are many varieties of spiny cactus that bear edible fruit. Indeed, in certain arid regions, and in particular about the Mediterranean, the fruit of the cactus has long been recognized as a valuable food product. Professor Leotsakos of the Greek University at Athens, who visited my grounds one summer recently, tells me that the cactus fruit is a very important part of the dietary of millions of people around the Mediterranean for about three months of the year. He declared that he himself would prefer a half dozen good cactus fruits for breakfast to the best beefsteak. He considers the fruit both nutritious and healthful, and this estimate is universal in countries where it is largely eaten. It is the custom in Greece, especially along the seashore, to collect the cactus fruits in the morning and store them in some cool place, either with ice or in a basket of sea water, which is said to improve the flavor of the fruit. Both wealthy and poorer classes eat the fruit at each meal throughout the season, according to my informer. So important is the cactus fruit regarded in Greece that Professor Leotsakos assured me that he would make haste on his return to communicate with the Government officials, that they might at once take steps to obtain my improved varieties for planting; for, of course, no variety of cactus hitherto known approaches the new hybrid species in quality or productivity. It appears that the cactus fruit is usually known about the Mediterranean as the Indian Fig. In this country it has been commonly referred to as the Prickly Pear. But now that the prickles are marked for elimination, this name will cease to be appropriate, and we may conveniently refer to the fruit as a Cactus Pear, unless some more distinctive name should be suggested.


The juice of the crimson variety of the cactus fruit is a brilliant carmine color that makes it very valuable for coloring ices, cakes, and confectionery. It is not only absolutely harmless but positively nutritious and beneficial, and is sure to gain popularity; taking the place of the artificial dyes that are now used so extensively, some of which are of doubtful wholesomeness. In Mexico the crushed fruit of the cactus after peeling and having the seeds strained out is sometimes cooked and dried and made into little loaves weighing from one to two pounds each. These cakes have a rich, sweet, honey-like flavor, to which the Mexicans are very partial. If carefully made they are very appetizing and wholesome. Indeed they constitute an important article of food, and are considered a luxury, having the qualities of a nutritious confection. Cactus fruit, indeed, in any form is in high repute in many tropical countries, being in some regions regarded as of value in renal diseases. Relatively large proportions of salts of magnesia, soda, potash, and lime in the fruit, in readily assimilable form, have been supposed to give it particular value, especially for residents of the tropics. The effect on the digestive organs is also very favorable. Even the leaves of the plant are made into pickles that, in the case of some varieties, are regarded as having a flavor equal to that of the cucumber. Most varieties, however, have a mucilaginous quality that is objectionable. This, of course, refers to the tissues of the plant itself, not to the fruit. It has been said that the cactus fruit in point of juiciness and texture is suggestive of a melon. Some people have compared its flavor to that of the cantaloupe. In other varieties the flavor suggests the raspberry. But, as already suggested, there is no standard of comparison that gives a clear conception of the taste of the fruit. The one conspicuous drawback is that the cactus fruit is filled with seeds. In the case of some of the wild varieties, the seeds are large and especially hard, but even these are habitually swallowed by the people who eat the fruit. The improved varieties have seeds scarcely larger than those of the tomato, although a little harder, and they may be swallowed with impunity. I have never known of anyone being injured by eating the cactus fruit in any quantity. It goes without saying that I have long had in mind to remove the seeds from the fruit of the perfected varieties of cactus fruit. Something has already been accomplished toward this in the reduction of the size of the seed as just referred to. But it will require a long series of experiments to eliminate the seeds altogether. The seeds are not collected at the center of the fruit as in the apple and pear and allied fruits, but are distributed somewhat evenly through the pulp, after the manner of the seeds of the watermelon. I have no doubt of ultimate success in eliminating the seeds altogether. But as we have seen in connection with other plants, the seed is about the last thing that the plant is willing to relinquish, for the excellent reason that it is an all-essential part for the propagation of the species in a state of nature. But the cultivated cactus plants do not need their seeds, and I have every expectation of being able to induce them to relinquish them. A specific account of the methods through which it is hoped to bring about this development, together with a detailed description of the origin of the spineless cactus itself, will be given in a later volume.

-Eighteen thousand pounds of cactus fruit to the acre has been found to be a common crop on even the poorest soil.

This text is from: Luther Burbank: his methods and discoveries and their practical application. Volume 6 Chapter 7