Fruiting cactus shows promise
A cactus plant that produces delicious fruit may show promise for cultivation in the water-short west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
Its second promising feature is its absorption of selenium, a compound that is overabundant in westside soils. Selenium was the primary suspect as a cause of deformities in birds that occurred several years ago as agricultural drain water was allowed to collect in the Kesterson Reservoir.
A cooperative project between the U.S. Department of Agriculture at its facility in Parlier in Fresno County and Fresno State University is evaluating the growth potential of the cactus as well as its selenium absorption and volatilization. The California Department of Water Resources is helping support the project.
The cactus under study is Opuntia, a variety native to the U.S. Southwest. It grows in the wild in desert and arid regions, the Western Pacific and near the Mediterranean. Its fruit is called cactus fig, although some have referred to the bright red delicacies as cactus apples and prickly pears.
The focus of the current study is a 35-acre planting on property near Five Points farmed by John Diener. The Diener family has pioneered agricultural development and growth on the valley's west side. John has cooperated for years in a number of studies and experiments to maximize the potential of irrigation water that has high levels of salt and selenium.
Three irrigation strategies are being studied. One involves good quality water; another, poor quality water; and the third, no water at all. Absorption of selenium by the cactus will be measured and evaluated.
Another important aspect of the study is the exploration of new and improved food products developed from the figs and the thick cactus stems. The fruit of the cactus is edible when peeled, and sweeter and juicier than might be expected. Its pulp and juice have been used to produce jams, jellies, candies and other fruit products.
The project coordinator for the USDA is Gary Banuelos, joined in the food evaluation aspect of the study by Gour Choudhury, professor in Fresno State's Department of Food Science and Nutrition.
Banuelos was quoted recently in the Fresno State publication Update, saying: "Introducing a new alternative crop for drainage-impacted areas can help utilize naturally occurring selenium pre sent in the soils and waters." Update is published by the Agricultural Technology Institute at Fresno State.
Choudhury's study of new food products for the cactus figs is entering its second year. His early experiments include use of the fruit for marmalade, chutney and puffed snack foods similar to Cheetos.
At the conclusion of the fourth year of the overall project, now in its second year, the researchers will determine whether to pursue prickly pear cactus trial production on a broader scale.
Banuelos has said the project will provide new and realistic information for growing and producing value-added products from Opuntia under adverse growing conditions. Receiving no irrigation water in a vast but fertile desert is about as adverse as it gets.
"Because Opuntia thrives under arid conditions with a minimum input of water, successfully growing this crop under rain-fed-only conditions may provide the semi-retired land areas within the Westlands Water District with a new potential crop," Banuelos said.
Before any cheers go up from those westside crop warriors, Opuntia's resistance to pests, disease and winter frosts and its marketability will have to be established. And some regulations may need to be revised to allow workers to harvest the fruit among all those prickly cactus leaves. Ouch!
CONTACT Don Curlee at firstname.lastname@example.org