Monday, July 31, 2023

Prickly Pear Cactus


Missouri is home to many wild edibles, but one in particular stands out. The prickly pear cactus, paddle cactus, or devils tongue is a native cactus growing throughout out state. When we think of cactus, we typically think of dry, arid deserts, and with good reason as that is where most cactus grow. The prickly pear does seem to prefer arid, rocky glades in their native range; however, they have adapted well to seemingly any weather conditions and are found through much of the North America, south of Canada. The name prickly pear is in reference to the fruit the cactus produces in mid to late summer after the blooms have faded away. Some use the term to describe the plant itself, and it certainly is prickly. This cactus bites, as I have been bitten many times by mine. Tiny, clear spines are difficult to remove from skin!

 Prickly pear is in the genus Opuntia and was named after the ancient Greek city of Opus. It was said an edible plant grew there and could be propagated just by rooting its leaves. While prickly pear does not technically have leaves, the paddles containing the spines are modified stems of the plant. However, if you place a cacti pad on the ground, water it for a few weeks, it will root itself and start a new plant. They are exceedingly easy to grow. They will spread out about three feet or more and reach heights of around twelve to fifteen inches.  The pads will be blue-green or green and have ¼ to ½ inch spines covering them. The bright yellow flowers appear in mid-summer and once those blooms have died off, the reddish colored fruit appears. This fruit is often referred to as tuna, which comes from the Spanish or Haitian name for the plant. 

By The original uploader was at English Wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by LudmiƂa Pilecka using CommonsHelper., Public Domain,    

Prickly pear holds significant cultural importance to the Mexican people, so much so, that their flag contains an image of the prickly pear cactus with an eagle holding a snake. The significance of the image comes from an Aztec legend. During the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries the Aztec people governed most of the land we know of today as Mexico. One day an Aztec priest approached his people and told them that Huitzilopochtli, the God of sun and war spoke to him. He was instructed to tell his people they had to leave and set up a new capital city. To find this new location they were to travel until they spotted an eagle atop a prickly pear cactus devouring a snake. Eventually they came upon such a place and named it Tenochtitlan, which translates to “place of the prickly pear cactus.” This ancient city is now at the center of Mexico City. To honor this legend, the Mexican flag contains the imagery associated with the legend.

The pads of the cactus are called nopales, and are used in many remedies, including one for burns, much like using aloe vera for the same purpose. Drinks to treat hepatitis can be made from the juices of the pads as well as to help control diabetes. Raw pulp lowers the absorption rate of sugar in the blood, thus helping avoid insulin shock. Traditionally this plant has been used to treat inflammation, acid reflux and other digestive disorders, urinary tract infections, as well as skin conditions.

The diversity of this hardy cactus seems never-ending. The Aztecs used the juice as a form of adherent. They would soak the cactus pads overnight in water, and in the morning, they would be incredibly sticky. They would mix the sticky pads with mortar to create a strong glue-like substance that is still used in parts of Mexico today in construction.  Wheels overheating on your cart? Well, we have a solution for that too. Apply the juices of this cactus to the wheels and no more burning wheels. 

By Photogir - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

To this day there are borders of prickly pear throughout Mexico to mark boundary lines for property. No need for manmade barbed wire when nature provides a suitable alternative. Not only have humans found they can protect their property borders with this gnarly plant-----animals also benefit from its protection. Birds, rodents, and other small creatures will burrow or nest under the safety of the cactus pads. After all, not many predators would want to tackle those sharp spines to gain a meal.

Probably my favorite use for prickly pear is in the culinary department. There is a plethora of dishes that can be made from the juices of the pad, as well as the fruit. Anything from salads, soups, wine, desserts, main dishes, breads, and candy are all options for creative cooks willing to try something nature provides. You will not only find yourself experiencing new and unique recipes but gain the potential health benefits from this vitamin and mineral packed plant. Happy harvesting but be mindful of the stickers (they bite).



Monday, July 10, 2023

Mayflies--Natures Bioindicators


So often we as humans complain about not having enough time in our lives to get everything done that we want to. Whether it is traveling to far off places, reading those books we meant to read or spending more quality time with family, there just never seems to be enough time to get it all accomplished. Now, imagine if you will, that you are a mayfly. Mayflies, also called shadflies or Canadian soldiers, are insects in the family Ephemiperidae, a Latin name which translates into “short-lived” an apt name for these insects. As a mayfly nymph, after a long underwater existence you will rise to the surface buoyed up by the air accumulated between your first and second layers of skin. Once at the surface you will shed your outer skin (subimago) and take a maiden flight to a nearby leaf, at this time you will shed your skin a second time which results in your final adult form. Then the urgency sets in; you are now on a mission to find a mate, and lay eggs; shortly thereafter you are destined to die…all in the span of less than 24 hours. Some species of mayflies, like the American sand burrowing mayfly, have mere minutes to accomplish this feat. This truly gives meaning to making the most of the time we are given. With more than 650 species of mayflies in North America there is no shortage of species to see. They are more common in the Eastern half of the United States, with only a few species calling the Western portion of the United States home.

The lifecycle of a mayfly begins underwater as a nymph with seven pairs of gills. They live in the bottom sediment of fast-moving streams, slow moving rivers, ponds, and lakes. The nymphs feed on sediment; diatoms and several species are even predatory and feed on other aquatic insects. The presence of mayfly nymphs indicates that a water source is clean, unpolluted, and highly oxygenated. As such they are bio-indicators for healthy watery habitats. This allows environmentalists, scientists, and fisheries biologists to correct potential problems in those environments before the damage is irreversible. The subimago are a favorite food of trout and are often used by fisherman as bait. Trout fishermen also use mayflies as a model for the flies that they tie for bait. Mayflies are the only group of insects to have this subimago stage into adulthood. As a subimago they do not fly well, cannot reproduce, and lack the coloring of the adult form that would attract a mate 


Time is of the essence, when you only live a day or two, or perhaps only mere minutes, like the aforementioned black-brown mayfly, there is no time to waste on frivolity. Soon after mating, the female will drop her eggs upstream in the water; the current will carry the eggs downstream and deposit them on the substrate in the bottom of the stream. If the eggs are laid in lakes or ponds, she will drop them willy-nilly on top the water, and the eggs sink to the bottom.

In some parts of the world the emergence of mayflies is a remarkable sight, they all seem to appear at once in a mass exodus. Mayflies are frequently encountered at pole lights and other places well-lit at night especially in the early part of summer. In some parts of the world, hatches are so large they attract tourists from all over the world to witness the phenomena that is the mayfly hatch. In 2014 a hatch of black-brown mayflies in Lacrosse, WI was so large it was imaged on weather radar. It rose 2500 feet into the air and resembled a significant rainstorm. In areas of large emergences such as this, they quickly amass large die offs that pile up on roadways and other areas in a slippery, slimy mess, even upon occasion causing accidents. Millions of mayflies rising up out of the water in one large swarm, landing on every available surface, may seem like a nuisance to many humans, but these little insects serve a major role in the lifecycle of other species. Mayflies are not only consumed by trout and other fish, but birds, frogs, toads, other insect eating creatures get in on the all-u-can-eat buffet of mayflies as well.

Although their large numbers can be intimidating, they are completely harmless to humans. They cannot bite; in fact, they do not have fully functioning mouth parts. However, they do have stomachs, although no food will ever pass through it. Instead, it is filled will air which allows it to fly into the air in a buoyant flight pattern. This lack of mouth parts means they do not feed. Their only reason for existence it would appear is to mate, reproduce, and to be sustenance to other creatures. I did find one resource during my research that claimed they eat fruits and flowers, but in my opinion, this would be fallacy. Most likely they are sipping liquid from the fruit or nectar from the flowers. I know of no mayfly that has the ability to eat, nor do they live long enough to worry about eating even if they could.

In 1909 a woman named Lillian Bland, from Ireland was intrigued by photographs she had seen of early planes. So impressed was she by the manmade flying machines she embarked on a mission to create her own. Out of this evolved the “Bland Mayfly” the first female created aero plane. The maiden flight, in 2010, was more of a glider, and the success of this unmanned machine prompted her to mount a 20-horsepower motor on her invention and take flight. She successfully flew this plane until the middle of 2011, when her father, worried for her safety, bribed her to stop flying in exchange for a car he would give her. It appears she gave up the life of flying in exchange for a safer four-wheel mode of transportation.


George Crabbe, author of the poem “the newspaper” written in 1785, compared the brief life of the mayfly to the brevity of the newspaper. He waxed poetically the following:

                “In shoals the hours their constant number bring

                Like insects waking to the advancing spring

              Which take their rise from grubs obscene that lie

In shallow pools, or thence ascend the sky.

Such are these base ephemeras; so born.

To die before the next revolving morn.”


As summer progresses be on the lookout for the newly emerged mayflies that may pay a visit to your porch lights at night. They are delicate, beautiful creatures, and worth taking a second glance at. Keep in mind however that the mayfly you see tonight will be long gone by tomorrow night, having already left behind her eggs and the chance for future generations.