The Spineless Cactus

For more than fifty years I have been quite familiar with "thornless cactus" of many species and varieties. In fact, one of the first pets that I had in earliest childhood was a thornless cactus, one of the beautiful Epiphyllums. The Phyllocactus and many of the Cereus family are also thornless, not a trace to be found on any part of the plants or fruit. Thus the somewhat indefinite popular name of "thornless cactus" has been used by persons unacquainted with these facts, for be it known that "thornless cactus" is no more of a novelty than a "thornless" watermelon. But among the Cacti which grow to an immense size with great rapidity and which can be readily cultivated in garden, field or desert no perfectly thornless ones were known and very little interest taken in the cacti of any kind, neither thorny nor thornless, as to their agricultural or horticultural value until the work of improvement was taken up on my experiment farms. Improved perfectly thornless rapid-growing varieties had been produced and made known within the past few years. Some of the best growers among these will produce three or four times as much weight of food per acre as will the wild thorny ones under exactly the same conditions. But better yet, hardy ones are being produced which will already withstand 5 or 10 degrees more freezing than others of the wild type. This was not unexpected, as the genus Opuntia is a surprisingly variable one even in the wild state. The best botanists-even those who have made the Opuntias a special study-declare it to be one of the most, difficult genera to classify, as new forms are constantly appearing and the older ones so gradually and imperceptibly merge together. The facts without doubt are that their ancestors had leaves like other vegetation and were as thornless as an apple tree; but in ages past were stranded in a region which was gradually turning to a desert, perhaps, by the slow evaporation of some great inland lake or sea. Being thus stranded the plants which could adapt themselves to the heat and drought which, as the years passed by became more and more severe each season, survived, at first by dropping the leaves thus preventing too much evaporation, leaving only the fat smooth stems to perform the functions of leaves. The Opuntias even to this day always shoot out very numerous rudimentary leaves, which persist a few days or weeks, and then having no function to perform drop off. But the Opuntias had yet to meet another enemy; desert animals were hungry for their rich stores of nutriment and water, so the rudimentary leaves were replaced by awful needle-like thorns placed at exactly the right angles for the best defense. At the base of these-partially embedded in the stems- (now leaves) are numerous bundles of smaller needles, more than ten thousand to each leaf. These are even more dangerous than the larger needles, often producing great pain, inflammation and at last death, to animals who were pressed by starvation to consume them for food.

Having once been thornless, there is no reason why the Opuntias should not some-time again revert to a state of partial thornlessness and this is exactly what they do. In the Hawaiian Islands a partially thornless Opuntia is sometimes found, always growing, however, in places absolutely inaccessible to browsing animals. In California, Mexico, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas small patches of half-thornless ones are sometimes found, almost always in inaccessible crevices among rocks. And on some of the South Sea Islands where vegetation is abundant and browsing animals few, the Opuntias having no use for thorns have either reverted back to thornlessness or often the thorns have become hair-like, diminished and perfectly harmless.

Some twelve years ago, I was testing the availability of a great number of proposed forage plants from the various arid regions of the world with a view to the improvement of the most promising. While I was testing, I became greatly impressed with the apparent possibilities in this line among the Opuntias. Their well known hardiness, remarkable vigor and rapidity of growth, easy multiplication and universal adaptability to conditions of drought, flood, heat, cold, rich or arid soil, place them as a class far ahead of all other members of the great cactus family, both as forage plants and for their most attractive, wholesome and delicious fruits, which are produced abundantly and without fail each season. These fruits, which are borne on the different species and varieties, vary in size from that of a small peanut to the size of a large banana and in colors of crimson, scarlet, yellow and white. They have more various attractive flavors than are usually found in most other fruits except perhaps the apple and the pear. The product of a single plant often weighs 50 to 200 pounds per annum, some bearing one crop, others two or more each season like the figs, with the first or main crop ripening as the second comes into bloom on the same plant.

The Opuntias, from root to tip, are practically all food and drink and are greatly relished by all herbivorous animals from a canary bird to an elephant. For this very reason they have to be on the defensive and perhaps nowhere in the whole vegetable kingdom have such elaborate preparations been made. The punishment inflicted is immediate, the pain severe and lasting, often ending in death, so that all living things have learned to avoid the Opuntias as they do rattlesnakes, and notwithstanding their most delicious and nourishing fruit produced unfailingly in greatest abundance have not been systematically improved by the Agriculturist and Horticulturist as their merits so well deserve.

By my collectors and others I secured the best Opuntias from all sections of Mexico, from Central and South America, from North and South Africa, Australia, Japan, Hawaiian and the South Sea Islands. The United States Agricultural Department at Washington, through my friend, Mr. David G. Fairchild, also secured eight kinds of partially thornless ones for me from Sicily, Italy, France and North Africa, besides a small collection of Mexican wild thorny ones, which were in the Government greenhouses at the time. Besides these, I had the hardy wild species from Maine, Iowa, Missouri, Colorado, California Arizona, New Mexico, Dakota, Texas and other states. All these were grown and their agricultural and horticultural values studied and compared with great care. Many so-called thornless or partly thornless ones were obtained, but not one among the thousands received from all these sources was absolutely free from thorns and spicules and even worse, those which were the most promising in these respects often bore the poorest fruit, were the most unproductive of fruit or produced less fodder or were less hardy than the wild thornless species and varieties. The first work was to select the best of these, cross them, raise numerous seedlings, select the best of these and so continue hoping for improvement. One of the first and not unexpected facts of importance to be observed, was that by crossing, the thorns were often increased rather than diminished, but not so with all. Some very few still became even more thornless than their so-called thornless parents greatly increased size and quality of leaves (raquettes or slabs) and among them a combination of the best qualities of both parents with surprising productiveness of slabs for feeding.

The work is still in progress but on a still larger scale and now the improved Opuntias promise to be one of the most important food-producers of this age. Some of these new creations, which were grown from the same lot of seed, yielded ten times as much feed as others under exactly the same conditions.

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