Thousands of burst pipes weren’t the only casualties of a rare, week-long freeze in Arizona earlier this month. Many venerable old prickly pears (genus Opuntia, various species) also didn’t make it.
It’s unknown why some survived and some are muertos, and no one will commit to saying they’ll recover. The last time southern Arizona sustained freezing temperatures this long was in 1880. Some of the plants will surely cling to life through the sheer will of evolution. The pads that have frozen and fallen off will turn brown and curl up, but there still may be life in the trunks. We’ll just have to wait and see.
The insides of the pads that froze turned into a gray jellylike substance instead of the edible, pulpy, fibrous matter that can support javelinas, cattle and jackrabbits. It’s a mystery how their mouths aren’t damaged by the spines, which are there to protect them from being eaten. The fruits are relished by an even larger variety of mammals and birds. These cacti also house nests for birds and rodents, and their showy flowers provide nectar for birds and bees. The prickly pear reproduces by pollination from birds and other insects; and asexually by the pads dropping and rooting, or from glochids carried by animals.
Prickly pears have been a food source for humans since ancient times. Pads are stripped of their spines, abraded, sliced, and used in salads and cooking, while the fruits form the base of candy, jelly, syrup, and alcoholic drinks.
The pads and fruits have two kinds of spines. The smooth, large, sharp but easily seen spikes—and the nearly invisible hairlike shards of misery, the glochids. When I arrived in Arizona, I was told many times not to touch prickly pears without gloves, but one day, in excitement at finding a litter of fruits underneath a large plant, I picked them up—and spent the next couple days in an intimate relationship with a magnifying glass and pair of tweezers. It’s an Arizona initiation rite.
Here’s what they should look like, young and old, according to the season: