Κεφάλαιο 1 - Οι φραγκοσυκιές ως φυσικός πόρος

Από Carmen Sáenz
Department of Agro-industry and Enology, Faculty of Agricultural Science, University of Chile, Chile.
Τμήμα Αγροτοβιομηχανίας και Οινολογίας, Γεωπονική Σχολή του Πανεπιστημίου της Χιλής

Γενικό Υπόβαθρο

Περιληπτικά, το κεφάλαιο αυτό λέει ότι η ιστορία της φραγκοσυκιάς έχει στενή σχέση με τους Μεσοαμερικανικούς πολιτισμούς και ιδιαίτερα των Αζτέκων.

Ότι πιθανόν το εισήγαγε στην Ευρώπη ο Χριστόφορος Κολόμβος. Ότι οι Ισπανοί βγάλανε αμύθητα ποσά από μια χρωστική που παράγεται από ένα έντομο που ζει στην φραγκοσυκιά (δείτε και το σχετικό άρθρο Πορφυρό της Τύρου από φραγκοσυκιά) και ότι είναι πηγή πλούτου για τους φτωχούς πληθυσμούς.

General background

Interest in Opuntia (also known as cactus pear) dates back many thousands of years. Its origin and history are closely related to the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations and particularly to the Aztec culture.

Archaeological evidence confirms that these plants were first cultivated by indigenous 
populations who settled in the semi-arid regions of Mesoamerica (Pimienta, 1990).

Cactus pear and other cacti were probably among the plants and animals brought to Spain by Christopher Columbus as samples of the exotic flora of the New World (Barbera, 1999; Velásquez, 1998).

When the Spaniard Hernán Cortés arrived in the Valley of Mexico in 1519 he was amazed 
at the attractive and delicious fruits of the nopalli plant (Náhuatl term for cactus pear plant), called nochtli in Náhuatl.

The chroniclers of that era, including Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, one of the first Spanish writers to describe the Americas, reported in his General and Natural History of the Indies in 1535 that the population consumed the fruit of the cactus pear: “…which they ate with great pleasure as it was the best delicacy that they had all year and would not replace it for anything in the world…”Nomadic tribes were attracted to areas where Opuntia was growing, and access to supplies of fruit became a reason for them to take 
up permanent residence (Bravo-Hollins, 2002).

Tales of old mention the great variety of Opuntiaavailable and their uses. In addition, they described the presence of the cochineal insect that fed on the fleshy green parts of the plant (cladodes), which was cultivated and harvested to produce what is still one of the world’s most valuable natural pigments: carmine. The insect and colorant was a secret kept hidden for many years by the Spanish who made great profits from rading the colorant.

In his General History of New Spain, Fray Bernardino de Sagahún skilfully described the many ways of using cactus pear. He says: “There are some trees in this land that are called nopalli, which means cactus pear or a tree that produces cactus pears. It is a huge tree whose trunk is made up of the leaves and offshoots from them; the leaves are wide and thick, with abundant juice, and are sticky; the leaves have spines. The fruit from these trees, called cactus pear, is good to eat; it is a valuable fruit. The leaves from the tree are 
eaten both raw and cooked. Some trees produce cactus pear fruit that are yellow inside, while others are red or pink inside, which are good to eat; other trees have green leaves with red markings, bearing fruit that are purple in colour both inside and out…”(Velásquez, 1998).

In an order of 1620, King  Philip III of Spain states that: “… one of the most valuable fruits 
grown in our Western Indies is the cactus pear, produce of equal value to gold and silver …”
(Velásquez, 1998).

The plant’s medicinal properties were acknowledged from the very beginning, including its value as an anti-inflammatory, diuretic and antispasmodic agent. Exploratory medical research continues to this day.

Opuntias are an intrinsic part of the history of Mexico and Mesoamerica. For example, their natural genetic origin is reflected in the official shield of Mexico, which contains an eagle perched in top of a cactus pear plant. This symbol has lasted to this day in the hieroglyphics of Great Tenochtitlán, a name that means ‘Place where the cactus pear grows on stone’.  This was the city where the Nahuas made their sacrifices, the 
capital of the Aztec Empire – nowadays known as Mexico City – where the plant occupied a special place in the economic, social and religious life of the people (Granados and Castañeda, 1996; Flores-Valdez, 2003).

Further evidence of early Mexicans’ knowledge and use of cactus pear can be found in the excavations of Tamaulipas and Tehuacán (Mexican State of Puebla), where fossilized seeds and skins of the cactus fruit and fibres from its leaves can be found, estimated to be 7 000 years old (Flores-Valdez, 2003). 

Soon after the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico another event involving the cactus pear took place, which highlights the species’ suitability for its environment. This was reported in the Náhuatl language in the tract Nican Mopohua (‘Here it is told’), describing the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The author, attempting to illustrate the area’s transformation in the presence of such sublime beauty, states: “The mesquites and cactus pear and various other grasses that are often grown there seemed like emeralds, their leaves the finest 
turquoise and their branches and spines shone like gold” (Valeriano, 1554).

While today’s observations about this species tend to be less euphoric, the plant may 
nevertheless contain many attractive and valuable compounds, and it is still highly valued for the protection and development of arid and semi-arid zones around the world.

Quite literally, the plant is the basis for life for resource-poor people living in these marginal areas. The plant’s full potential has yet to be shared as an important option for these populations and for all humankind