Opuntia stricta (Opuntia dillenii)

The cacti known as nopales are very fast growing plants that, depending on the species, produce fruits that are really delicious. However, adapting so well to various habitats, today there are some that are considered invasive, and one of them is Opuntia dillenii, now known as Opuntia stricta.

This is a species that, seen with the naked eye, is very reminiscent of the also invasive Opuntia ficus-indica. Its stalks (modified leaves) are more or less flat, bluish-green, and once ripe the fruits are red-pink. But what else is there to know about her? Can it be cultivated?

Origin and characteristics

Image – Flickr/ John Tann

The now Opuntia stricta is a species native to the United States, Mexico and Cuba, known by the common name of the coastal prickly pear cactus. It can reach a height of 1 to 3 meters, with a highly branched shrub and creeping bearing. The stalks or leaves are large, up to 30cm long and up to 15cm wide, ovate to ovulated and flattened, with widely separated brown areoles, from which one or more yellowish spines sprout.

It produces solitary yellow to yellowish-orange flowers with a size of about 5cm long during spring-summer, and fructifies towards the beginning of autumn. Its fruits are purple-red when ripe, are shaped like an inverted egg, are about 3-4cm long and contain 60 to 180 seeds protected by a mucilage that is also suitable for human consumption and with which birds and other animals enjoy.. These seeds can remain viable for more than 10 years, until the appropriate conditions are met for their germination.

It is included in the Spanish Catalog of Invasive Exotic Species approved by Royal Decree 630/213 of August 2, the introduction to the natural environment, possession, transport, traffic and trade throughout Spain being prohibited.

Does it have any use?

In the places of origin the fruits are used for consumption, but in addition to the interior of the leaves, a mucilage is extracted that is used to treat burns and abscesses.

Why is Opuntia dillenii dangerous ?

Image – Wikimedia/ uleli

It is a very fast growing cactus that was introduced to Europe in the 16th century by the conquerors of the Americas. In Spain it is known that it has been around since 1874, the year it was in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, specifically in the provinces of Huelva and Almería. Since then until today, it has managed to become naturalized in Andalusia, growing in bushes, hedges and in regions with an arid climate.

In the Doñana National Park, it is preventing an autochthonous species, the Retama monosperma, from flourishing (you have more information about this here). If we talk about what is happening in other parts of the world, in Sri Lanka, China, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, among other places, it has been identified as invasive.

Therefore, seeing what is already happening in Spanish territory and in other countries, and knowing that it multiplies without problems both from seeds and asexually with the leaves that are shed, every time you see one in nature, the best thing to do is tear it off.

What control measures are being carried out?

Image – Flickr/ Craig Hunter

Apart from manually pulling them off, in Australia its population is being controlled thanks to the Lepidoptera Cactoblastis cactorum, but the introduction of this insect to places where Opuntia stricta is endemic, such as in Mexico, negatively affects both it and other species of Opuntia, cacti from which different products are extracted for sale.

And it is that, of course, we cannot forget that if a plant or animal is introduced to a new place with conditions that are favorable for them, it is normal that it does not find predators, so it is expected that it will multiply and that its population grow fast, occupying a land that does not correspond to him, but to the native species; that is, those that have been in existence for many years (hundreds, thousands), adapting to that habitat.

There are cacti that are very beautiful and that could, in principle, be of great use to us. The species I have told you about is one of them. In fact, if it were not invasive, I would tell you that it could become excellent as a low protection hedge due to the thorns it has, but I would be making a mistake if I now told you what to care for or where to buy. Always, always we must protect nature, forests, bushes, beaches, everything, otherwise we could expect a not very promising future.

If you like Opuntia, there are many that you can have, such as Opuntia microdasys or Opuntia littoralis, and even Opuntia ficus indicates that, although it is also invasive, its possession in gardens is allowed.

I hope it has been useful to you.

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