BUILDING GREAT GREEN CACTUS WALLS (Willem Van Cotthem)

Many development workers are looking for drought-tolerant edible plants, to be grown with a minimum of irrigation water.  Of course, they are mostly thinking at food crops and herbs, often genetically modified.

It sounds almost unbelievable, but millions of people in Central and South America are eating spineless cacti (“nopales”) without people on other continents following their example.

Only a minority of people knows that many parts of the spineless variety of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) are edible (pads, fruits, seeds).  And yet this is an extremely interesting variety of the spiny “Indian Fig” : Opuntia ficus-indica var. inermis. It is not only supplying fresh food to malnourished and hungry people, but can also be used as a living fence around fields or meadows. It can play an important role for livestock.  Amazingly, this cactus can also be trimmed in a tree form.

The day will come that billions of people in the drylands will grow this marvelous cactus at home or at school, even in all the refugee camps, in kitchen gardens, in the field or in containers.

Although these smooth, spineless cacti can be found on every continent and can be easily multiplied by simply planting individual pads, they are almost never used to combat desertification (living fences).

I can’t stop dreaming of a GREAT GREEN CACTUS WALL across Africa (or in desertified areas on other continents, wherever needed).  Instead of spending billions on planting a forest belt over a period of decades, growing saplings in nurseries, digging plant holes, watering the saplings and loosing many of them because of the drought, a great green cactus wall could be installed in a minimum of time at a ridiculously low cost.

It would cost peanuts to disperse this edible plant (pads or seeds) in all the drought-affected regions.

Some will raise the question of the possible invasive nature of this cactus.  Let me remind that this is the SPINELESS variety of the prickly pear and it is EDIBLE.  Should one not dream of an invasive food crop for people and animals in all the drylands ?

Just remember : it’s August 2014 and I suggest to start as soon as possible with the edification of GREAT GREEN CACTUS WALLS, laying down a ribbon of spineless cactus pads.  Let nature do its work : the pads will grow easily and magnificent “barriers” will help to combat desertification.

What are we waiting for ?

All photos below found on Pinterest.

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A spineless cactus wall

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Pads at the top with flower buds and flowers

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Tree-like development of a spineless cactus

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“Cactus tree” with “stems” at the base

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Some Opuntias can be grown into a tree-like structure

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They can be grown in the backyard

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An ornamental that can be eaten

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Enormous biomass with a bit of water

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Edible pads and “barbary figs”

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A gift for the hungry people and malnourished children

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So easy to multiply

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Even in containers

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Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.