More than just prickly

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Zubin D’souza

The Shumla caves in Texas, USA have always been on the exploration bucket list of any archaeologist wishing to shed light on the ancient original inhabitants of the areas that encompass North America and Mexico. Each exploration has turned up archaeological treasures. Sometimes it has been something as simple as a hand napped arrowhead but there have been reports of shards of ancient pottery and beads too. However, nothing has been as intriguing as the surprise discovery of dried up remnants of peyote ‘buttons’. These peyote extracts were surprisingly over five thousand years old.

Now the peyote cactus is a flat, button-shaped plant that is often topped with a white flower. It grows wild in the Mexican and American deserts and it is common to see a spread of them or individual stragglers. What is unique however of this plant is the power it has to send you into realms that you wouldn’t have thought possible!

The peyote is known to contain mescaline which is an extremely powerful psychoactive drug. When consumed, this drug delivers colourful, kaleidoscopic hallucinations and a heightened sensory clarity and awareness. Before it became the elusive and fascinating reason for people to visit the wilderness of the desert, it was used by the ancient native Indians for religious rituals and to commune with the spirits of their ancestors. It was believed by the ancients that this humble cactus was a gift from the gods that enabled the consumer to establish a direct connection with the Supreme Spirit. Now of course, modern times have called for spirituality to be set aside and unbelievers are using it as a drug of choice to communicate with their innermost carnal desires.

But the ‘spiritual’ influence of cactus isn’t just limited to peyote. In San Antonio, Texas, a duo behind the famous vodka brand ‘Spike’ derive their alcohol from the prickly pear cactus that the desert is famous for. Far from being a neutral spirit, this vodka delivers a wallop with a hint of pepper, vanilla and almond fragrances in its wake.

The saguaro is the largest cactus that grows in North America. It can grow to a height of over forty feet and live to be around a century and half. They are native to the Sonoran Desert in the US state of Arizona. Right at the top of this plant grow fruit that develop out of cactus. The fruit used to be traditionally collected by the indigenous population by knocking them over with specially crafted long poles. The fruit was processed to create, jams, syrups, fruit leather and wine and the seeds are often dried and ground into a flour. Apart from being a source of salvation in the midst of the desert, the fruit contains vitamins B12 and C, high amounts of protein and soluble fibre.

In the very same desert, members from the Tohono O’odham tribe look forward to the arrival of April each year. That’s when the cholla cactus develops its flower buds. These are quickly harvested while being careful to circumvent the sharp thorns, quickly cooked to savour the flavour that appears to be a combination of artichoke heart and asparagus. Because the harvest season is a relatively tiny window in the entire year, the buds are dried and stored and only need to be soaked and rehydrated before cooking. The beauty part is that even two tablespoons of these buds have calcium equivalent to a glass of milk which makes this an amazing staple for lactating mothers and the elderly.

And right across the border in Mexico, prickly pears have come to be a commodity of such great reverence that they have even made an appearance on the national flag. While others may eat the fruit of the prickly pear and often convert it into a salad, the innovators amongst them create a delightful bright red sorbet called nieve de tuna.

And not all cacti or their fruit arrive with thorns. There are members of the family that are referred to as ‘succulents’ for a very good reason. One of the most famous cacti derivatives is one that has achieved global fame and has probably seen the business end of your cutting board on more than one occasion. Dragon fruit, the beautiful fruit with a rose hued skin that hides a pearly white interior that is speckled with tiny black seeds is actually the product of a variety of climbing cacti. The consumption of this fruit has been advocated to combat the effects of the mosquito borne dengue

disease.

While the world of cacti offers so many possibilities, aficionados still trample the desert in search of the elusive high of the peyote.