The prickly-pears (Opuntia spp., Cactaceae): A source of human and animal food in semiarid regions
The Cactaceae contain many economically promising species primarily in the genus Opuntia. This genus appears to have its center of genetic diversity in Mexico where it is widely used as fodder, forage, fruit, and a green vegetable. In southwestern United States, the prickly-pears have been considered as both weeds and valuable forage plants. During the frequent, unpredictable droughts, propane torches known as “pear burners” are used to singe the spines off cactus pads so that they can be eaten by livestock. Although spineless varieties of Opuntia can be consumed directly by domestic livestock, they are extremely susceptible to herbivory by wildlife. The Cactaceae possess Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, which can be four- to five-fold more efficient in converting water to dry matter than the most efficient grasses. Some Opuntia strains grow rapidly with fresh-fruit yields of 8,000–12,000 kg/ha/ yr or more and dry-matter vegetative production of 20,000–50,000 kg/ha/yr.