The Prickly Pear, Opuntia ficus-indica, is a genus in the cactus family Cactaceae and in keeping with all true cactus species, only occurs in the western hemisphere.
They were introduced into Europe by the Spanish, possibly in 1493 after Christopher Columbus returned from the Americas, and are to be found all along the Mediterranean coast. Prickly Pears were often to be found on ships in order to help prevent scurvy, a common affliction amongst latter day sailors.
The fruit of the Prickly Pear, variously known as cactus fruit, cactus fig, Indian fig and a few more besides, is edible but takes quite a bit of careful preparation. This is because of two sets of spines, one set of large spines and one set of smaller, almost furry spines which, if not properly removed, can detach and cause irritation to the throat.
These days in southern Spain, consumption of the Prickly Pear is fairly localised and is generally eaten as a dessert.
On the other hand, Mexican natives have happily munching Prickly Pears as food for thousands of years and also make an alcoholic drink from it, known as colonche. The Maltese, amongst others, also brew an alcoholic drink from the Prickly Pear.
Most of the Prickly Pears tend to grow in cluttered ‘clumps’ and are sometimes used as a sort of natural fencing, quite effective one would imagine. There are not many humans, and even fewer animals, who would fancy getting tangled up with all those sharp spines.