Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Native or Immigrant? The prickly pear's identity crisis

This is the flower which will develop into a prickly pear. The young fruit can be already seen growing under the flower, and a few more mature ones grow behind it.

Prickly pear cacti grow all over Israel and the Middle East in general, where they are used not only to produce the tasty fruit, but also as borders between houses and villages. The cactus is so omnipresent that most people think the prickly pear to be endogenous to the Middle East. Israelies have taken this one step further and have adopted the Hebrew name for the prickly pear (tzabar) (Sabra in English) to describe native born Israelis. Like the fruit, a tzabar is thought to be prickly and dangerous on the outside, but soft and sweet inside.

In reality though, the prickly pear may be an imposter. While it pretends to be native, it is actually a new immigrant (in Hebrew, an oleh). Molecular DNA studies indicated that the prickly pear of the Middle East, Opuntia ficus-indica, is actually an import from Mexico! Many European traders carried the prickly pear on board to prevent scurvy, and then transplanted the cacti around the Mediterranean. 

As a new immigrant, I can now proudly declare myself a tzabar !


  1. Thanks!

    Very interesting story. :)

  2. Thanks. i think its fitting for the middle east that nothing is a real native!

  3. So what, for an ignoramus, is that whole Sabra thing about? Or is Sabra just an old-fashioned spelling for tzabar?

    1. Yes Sorry! I left that one point out. A "sabra" in English is a "tsabar" in hebrew.

  4. Thanks for the information. I was recently in the Middle East and saw all the prickly pear which didn't square with what I remembered from college botany - that the old world convergent was in the euphorbia family, not cactus. So - it's pretty widespread considering that it is a post-Columbian import.

  5. Do you have further sources on the DNA studies of the origin of the prickly pears?