Back in 1918, a group of entrepreneurs decided to make money out of the prickly pear, curse of the Karoo veld.
They distilled a fuel out of this unlikely plant, and to prove it worked, planned an expedition from Cape Town to Bulawayo. Writer Lawrence Green was roped in as independent observer.
The enterprise was remarkably successful until they reached Rhodesia. Then, as Green reports, the car’s driver accidentally sucked the poisonous fluid into his lungs while giving a demonstration to interested locals, and promptly died.
That public relations disaster pretty much marked the end of prickly pears as a biofuel source.
These days it’s hard to imagine what a terrible pest this American cactus was. By 1900 it covered thousands upon thousands of hectares of eastern Karoo, vast dense thickets impenetrable to livestock.
From the 1880s right up to the mid-1930s, debate raged over what to do about them. Then two prickly pear predators were introduced – the cochineal beetle and the cactoblastis moth borer.
Over the years, these two insects cut a swathe through the prickly pear jungle. Now the rampant invader is mostly under control.
These cacti (also called Turkish figs, turksvye) are still popular with Karoo livestock farmers who use them as emergency drought fodder. Farmers, though, make a distinction between the specially bred ‘tamed’ prickly pear with fewer spines, and the far more invasive ‘wild’ thorny kind.
The prickly pear is downright respectable these days. You get prickly pear syrup (delicious poured onto buttered bread or used to braise chops on the braai), prickly pear vinaigrette, even venison recipes calling for prickly pear and mint salsa.
The jointed cactus is clearly here to stay.