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How prickly is a prickly pear?

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image of Israel Journal of Plant Sciences

Prickly pear, the very spiny cactus Opuntia ficus-indica, became common and part of the landscape of the Land of Israel several centuries ago when the Levant was part of the Ottoman Empire. In traditional agriculture, hedges of these very spiny plants protected fields from the unwanted impact of the many livestock herds, and, in addition, their sweet fruit was eagerly eaten by humans. We measured the number and distribution of spines in mature, fully expanded green cladodes (the flat, rounded photosynthetic succulent branches) in order to quantify its physical defense. On average, a cladode has 121 areoles (flat lateral buds) carrying a total of 320 spines. The narrow upper margins of the cladodes occupy on average only 9.3% of the cladode area, but 43% of the spiny areoles, which are much denser there. Thus, in this Opuntia species, the strongest physical defense is formed where the tissues have a higher risk of attack by large herbivores.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Science Education-Biology, University of Haifa—Oranim ; 2: Department of Science Education-Biology, University of Haifa—Oranim


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