Writer: Kathleen Davis Phillips, (979) 845-2872, firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact: Dr. Andrew Paterson, (979) 845-3773, email@example.com
Dr. Peter Felker, (512) 593-3966, firstname.lastname@example.org
COLLEGE STATION — Who hasn’t looked at a desert carpeted with prickly pear cactus and thought “Yummy ice cream toppings and battered fries?”
Most of us haven’t — at least not yet. But scientists are hoping that a mixture of biotechnology and cultural practices will bring cactus to more U.S. dinner tables.
It’s not likely that the common prickly pear that invades pastures will make it to market, but specially designed varieties bred from its relatives will, according to Dr. Andrew Paterson, molecular biologist for the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in College Station.
So sold are researchers, medical professionals, producers and chefs that the cactus is an up-and-coming culinary star that a Professional Association for Cactus Development has been established in Texas. The group’s recent meeting in San Antonio brought cactus enthusiasts from the United States, Mexico, Chile and Argentina. They agreed that research will bring a superior product and that education will be necessary to make the prickly pear as popular on plates in the United States as in other countries around the world.
“In many cultures, cactus is a part of the traditional food and medicine,” Paterson said. “But in the United States and much of Europe, this is relatively new.”
Prickly pear cactus are a “new world” plant, mostly likely originating in Mexico. Some of the earliest Spanish explorers took it back to Spain, and it spread throughout North Africa when the Moors were expelled from Spain. Indeed, people on those continents are familiar with cactus fare, using both the pear as fruit and the stems as a vegetable. It is estimated that Mexicans eat as much cactus as U.S. consumers eat cauliflower.
Thorns on the fleshy stems and branches, however, have kept the plants out of touch for U.S. consumers who are not likely to spend time removing the spines. Also, consumers in this country complain about the slimy texture inside cactus stems.
But when the research is done, proponents say, the prickly pear cactus won’t be so prickly, there won’t be a lot of slime and there will be a plentiful, year around supply. One such variety already has been identified, the Texas A&M 1308, according to Dr. Peter Felker, Texas A&M University-Kingsville, scientist.
Another goal is to enhance fruit quality. Felker said a native cactus pear weighs 30 grams and has a sugar content of about 9 percent. That compares to current commercial varieties that weigh 110-150 grams and have a sugar content of up to 14 percent. “We’re looking at about double the sugar content and four times the size,” Felker said.
“Texas A&M 1308 is especially promising,” he added. “It produces a lot of small tender pads throughout the year and doesn’t have any stickers.”
Felker explained the two kinds of thorns: the spines are about half an inch; the glochids are about 1/32 of an inch, hard to see, and fine as hair. Young Texas A&M 1308 plants have no glochids either, he said.
With this cactus and about 70 other varieties collected mostly from the mountains of Mexico, Felker and Paterson will begin this winter to examine the cactus at the molecular level.
“Our first objective will be to get the DNA out of cactus,” said Paterson whose previous research first produced evidence linking all grasses and later all flowering plants to a common ancestor. “Then we will look at germplasm from many different places and try to establish relationships between them.”
In the loner term, he said, the team will build a molecular map for prickly pear cactus to examine where the genes are for fruit quality, cold-hardiness and sliminess, for example.
Plant breeders could use such information to select traits and engineer superior cactus for consumption.
“We hope to develop the basic techniques within two years, but it will be perhaps five years before we are realistically applying molecular tools in the way that we are with cotton and sorghum currently,” Paterson said.
While research seeks a better prickly pear, however, growers and food processors are continuing to produce and promote the cactus.
“Right now we have 10 varieties of cactus for fruit that we are distributing to ranchers and growers for trials on one-fourth acre plots,” Felker said. Growers in Texas and California already are cultivating the crop and packaging such products as pickles and a seed-free puree sold frozen for use in margaritas and dessert toppings.
“With the advent of a shelf-stable cactus fruit product that is available year round and capable of being shipped to all parts of the world and incorporated into any number of food products, this should greatly increase consumer awareness, market acceptability and therefore the demand for cactus fruit products,” Felker said.