People and the Prickly Pear

The prickly pear cactus?

You mean that spiky, spiny cactus that grows like a weed in the desert – are you serious?

LROpuntia genericJoin me in a bold new project as I explore and investigate the world of the curious prickly pear cactus, and how this plant, both cherished and reviled, is being used in many unique ways around the world.  Many of us are aware of the delicious fruits and the young pads gracing the tables of the Americas and beyond, but did you know that this plant is grown for biofuels on marginal lands in Latin America and that the seeds are cold-pressed to produce a natural oil for the cosmetic industry in Northern Africa?   Let’s go behind the scenes and meet the people who grow, harvest and use this cactus.


Mexico Mesoamerica South America Caribbean Southern Europe Mediterranean Islands Northern Africa Middle East USA India Asia Australia  Eastern Cape South Africa


I have chosen to use in-country collaborators for this project for many reasons.  Having worked and traveled to many parts of the world I am acutely aware of how a western person is perceived by the locals and how projects are either a success or a failure depending upon  the extent to which the stakeholders are included from the beginning.  Each area will hold it’s own unique set of opportunities so it is impossible for me to say right now who will be working with me in any given place.

kids cameras2

However, I do know that I will be tapping into the local talent for photographers, filmmakers, guides, experts and great cooks (for after all we must eat well and enjoy the culinary diversity of each region).

kids cameras3

If I’m not able to find the photographers/filmmakers I need, I’ll recruit some interested kids – bring them together in a workshop to teach them the basics – and then see what we get.  This strategy has worked before when I was in Asia.

A second benefit of using local collaborators is the unguarded access you get to the people who are part of the story.  A grandparent is always open to the the whims of their grandchildren even in front of a camera!  There are too many tales of insensitive photographers and travelers disrupting social and cultural events to ‘capture’ that image and now, locals and particularly indigenous people are rightly wary of any foreigner wielding a camera.  There will be rough-cut editing done on-location so everyone has a chance to see themselves on screen, or their name in the credits.


Originating in Central Mexico, the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp) became established throughout Mesoamerica, South America, and the Caribbean in Pre-Columbian times and was believed to be on board one of Columbus’ ships when he returned to Lisbon in 1493. From there, Opuntia has naturalized in a wide band along both coasts of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, parts of East Africa, Asia, Australia and South Africa.  There are approximately 200 different species of  prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp)  worldwide.

The most commonly used species is Opuntia ficus-indica where the fruit (tuna) and pads (nopales) are staple food items, but there are many other traditional and new uses for this cactus including:

  • animal fodder
  • fencing
  • biofuel
  • cosmetic oils
  • medicine
  • adobe brick and paint stabilizer
  • water purifier
  • and it acts as the exclusive host to the cochineal scale insect which produces the natural, red dye carmine
  • can also be invasive



A coffee-table style format will be used to highlight the stunning visual appeal of the prickly pear itself, the landscape upon which it grows and the remarkable people who work with this cactus on a daily basis.  There are festivals and markets, food artisans, ranchers and herders, researchers, biofuel digesters, and the scale insects in Peru and Ethiopia producing the “Red Coats” carmine dye. These are the images that will hold your attention and pique your interest.

The general text for the book will be written in an accessible style for a general audience with pertinent scientific facts featured in boxes embedded in the text.  Footnotes will be present and an appendix will provide a more in-depth discussion of facts where relevant.  A full bibliography will provide the references behind the story.


A series of documentary episodes weaves the storyline with a visual narrative.  Short trailers of each episode will be posted via YouTube and/or Vimeo and inserted into the blog posts over the life of the project.


You will experience all the ups and downs of solo traveling with cameras, and a laptop while embarking on a multi-year project.  Meet the people I’m collaborating with in each country, the foods, the kindness of strangers, town and country life and anything else that catches my eye.


Opuntia spp. is extremely efficient at converting available water to biomass in arid environments and as such it has been touted as an economic development plant for several decades.  The main agricultural production worldwide is for the prized fruit, and to a lesser extent the young pads, but in recent years there has been increasing research and development in non-food uses, such as biofuels and seed oil.  Researchers at several universities in Latin America and Europe are isolating and testing various compounds for biomedical application, and traditional folklore uses around the world are being quantified and evaluated.  However, Opuntia remains obscure and somewhat curious to the general public.

As arable farmland and water resources becoming scarcer in a changing climatic environment, it behooves us to carefully examine the use of marginal land for economic crop development and, to gain widespread public support for such endeavors.

Grounded in scientific inquiry but presented in the popular format of a documentary, a blog and a coffee table book, the story of People and the Prickly Pear will be explored,  not just as a curious plant that is used in un-pronounceable places, but as one of a number of plants that has worldwide economic benefit.


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