Sunny Canaries

NATURE

Prickly Pears

Prickly pears (called tunas by the locals) are to be found in abundance on the island; they were highly prized in past times and increased the value of land as any other fruits were very scarce and the plants pads were hosts for the cochineal beetle, once an important dye source. The fruits are covered in tiny prickles (glochids) that penetrate the skin at the slightest touch and are difficult to remove so they need some care in handling but are a delicious treat if you take the trouble to prepare them.

Locals use long handled wooden tongs to harvest them but thick gloves can be utilized. The fruits are ripe when a slight twist will bring them easily away from the “pads”. The perfect stage of ripeness only lasts about a week and the maximum storage time is 8-9 days. Once the fruit is removed from the cactus it will rapidly lose its nutritional value and may ferment, so it’s best to eat or process it soon after its harvest.

The fruits from the plants that yield a light, honey coloured flesh tuna are the best, their taste is reflected in the honey colour, the ones with a deeper red fruit are not so sweet.

Once picked, soak the fruits in water to soften their prickles, or pass through an open flame, then peel. They are delicious chilled and eaten raw, exquisite when passed through a juicer or can be made into syrup  (the syrup can be reduced further and fermented into an alcoholic drink – known as coloncha in Mexico) or made into jam.

There has been medical interest in the  plant; some studies have shown that the pectin contained in the Prickly Pear pulp lowers levels of "bad" cholesterol while leaving "good" cholesterol levels unchanged. Another study found that the fibrous pectin in the fruit may lower diabetics' need for insulin. There are on going studies and at this point there are no proven results on humans.


The Islands Dragons 

Curious sights, Drago Trees with their prehistoric aspect are a fundamental part of the botanical and cultural history of the islands. Reaching a height of up to 18 meters the tree owes its name (Dragon tree) and its mythical fame to its strange red coloured sap (known as dragon’s blood). Appreciated since the times of ancient Rome where it was used as a colourant and panacea for all ills, interest in the sap lasted for many centuries throughout the whole of the European continent.  Its uses even extended to its being employed as a protector against rust. 

Before the Spaniards arrived on the Canary Islands, some five hundred years ago, Dragon Tree fruits were the main food of an endemic, Dodo-like, flightless bird which is now extinct. Related to the pigeon, it was about the size of a turkey. Because of the extinction of the species, naturally occurring Dragon Trees are becoming very rare. The processing of Dragon Tree seeds through the digestive tract of this bird helped stimulate germination - without this aid, seed must be manually processed in order to sprout. The survival of the Dragon Tree was, in some ways, safeguarded by the original natives of the islands, the Guanches, a race of white-skinned, blue-eyed people now racially blended with their Spanish conquerers, They processed the sap from injured branches or stems into 'Dragon's Blood', used in the mummification processes. Through time, this unusual substance has been thought to contain various medicinal and magical properties, and was sought by various cultures around the Mediterranean, Europe, and Africa.

The islanders formerly used the red resin that the wounded trees exude as a remedy for dysentery, haemorrhages and excessive menstruation and externally to dry out ulcers and wounds, its most common use however was to strengthen the gums. In the past dyes and varnish were extracted and it also played its part in agricultural life providing forage for farm animals, (and its fruit known as bayas, for their shepherds.) Rope was made from its flexible bark and barrels, weapons, and fishing instruments from its trunk. Apiculturists also frequently used it to make corks for their hives.

Believed to have been brought to the Canaries by birds that ingested the seeds in the African island of Sokotoro, species can be found in each of the Canary Islands. The tree flowers only once every 10 years, the flowering lasting just two weeks. 

The biggest and most famous dragon tree existing is growing at Icod de los Vinos in Tenerife. This beautiful example measures 17 meters high and has a perimeter of 20 meters at its base. The tree weighs 150 tonnes (not counting its roots) and its age has been estimated at 800-1,000 years, although some people believe it to have lived for more than 5 millenniums.

Its trunk has an enormous cavity 6 meters high that is accessible through a door, in 1985 a thorough disinfection was carried out and a ventilator installed inside to improve the air circulation and prevent the proliferation of fungi. In 1993 the local council diverted the road that passed a few meters from the tree to help to ensure its continuing survival.

In Fuerteventura there are a few surviving specimens, in Tiscamanita for example one is growing at a farm where it was planted in 1889 by Marcial Velazquez who was working in Tenerife at that time. He brought back the seed from Teide to Fuerteventura and planted it in a ravine where the tree can still be seen today. 

A specimen brought the same year to Tetir has not been so fortunate; the use of seawater when repairing roads caused salt to infiltrate into the soil and the tree has completely dried out. 


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