The much-awaited prickly pear [Archives:2006/975/Reportage]

August 24 2006
Photo from archived article: photos/975/report1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/975/report1_1
By: Salim Al-Majidi
Prickly pear season is welcomed warmly in Yemen, particularly by the poor. The fruit has its own market that doesn't allow any other fruits to come close to it. As cheap fruit with a gratifying return, prickly pears are bought by all men, women and children.

Prickly pear season is from June to August and during that time of year, various zones and locations are full of street vendors selling prickly pears by cart, while women sellers use baskets. All sellers – men, women and children alike – hold a small knife in their hands, not for slaughtering, but for removing the prickly pear's outer covering, which has small thorns. If the outer covering isn't removed carefully, the small thorns may mix with the fruit causing injury when eaten.

In an area allocated for flood drainage caused by rain, one can find many people and cars filled with prickly pear boxes. Most of the fruit comes from Al-Hayma, where prickly pear trees grow abundantly.

Haj Sa'eed Naji is a prickly pear distributor in the wholesale market. When asked where the fruit comes from, in addition to its price, Naji noted that Al-Hayma is the area famed for growing prickly pears, as well as other crops like coffee, corn, millet and qat.

“Once prickly pears are ripe, we remove them from the trees and put them in plastic boxes, which I then transport in my car for selling in Taiz,” Naji explained “Prickly pear trees aren't planted; they grow naturally and cost farmers nothing – just some stings when they pick the fruit! A box of prickly pears costs YR 300-YR 400. I transport approximately 100 boxes a day,” he added.

Inaccessible fruit

Prickly pear fruit begins growing from a small, soft bud at the tips of large, thick leaves covered with thorns. In time, the bud grows, taking on its usual egg-like shape.

The fruit is sheltered by a thick covering full of small thorns which are harmful to the eyes. They also cling to the body as soon as one touches the prickly pear fruit and they can move through the air.

Harvesting prickly pears requires gloves. When one wants to eat a prickly pear, he must get rid of the thorns and use precise tools like small forks to cut out the fruit. Prickly pear is a tasty, palatable fruit filled with sugar and a small percentage of water.

A season anticipated by all

Prickly pear season is a rich season celebrated by all – young, old, men and women, who patiently await it. As it is the case with other fruits, prickly pears arrive in summer. They are the only fruits sold separately and not with other fruits. Basically, they're not given that amount of attention required to grow other kinds of fruit, as to planting, irrigating and fertilizing. Further, they don't require much effort or money, so the price is low in comparison to other fruits.

When asked why he sells prickly pears for YR 300 per box, Naji replied, “Transportation costs play a role. Additionally, some children help pick prickly pears and they need promotional sums of money to make them work with you.

“After their peels are removed, three prickly pears sell for YR 10,” Naji added when asked about the price to the final consumer.

Farmers' fruit

“Prickly pear is farmers' fruit and is awaited patiently. Its season lasts for about two months,” Abdullah Al-Kawkabani asserted, “Most poor families utterly depend upon this season for their livelihood. It's a source of income for many children and youth, who can earn money by picking and selling prickly pears.”

Fifteen-year-old Mohammed, a thin street vendor with hands stuck by thorns, uses a small knife to remove prickly pears' outer covering, thus receiving customers with fruit ready to eat. “I pay YR 350-YR 400 a box for prickly pears and I need three boxes to fill this cart,” Mohammed said.

“I sell them to customers at two pears for YR 10, if they're large, or three pears, if they're medium. Each box holds approximately 150-180 pears. I earn between YR 200-YR 300. It's a chance to come up with my pocket money and my family's during prickly pear season instead of sitting with no work or wandering in the streets,” he added.

Rayhana, who's sold prickly pears for years, commented, “I like to buy this fruit rather than other fruits because it's profitable and requires no more capital, as is the case with other fruits.

“I support a large family selling this fruit because we don't have a man to support us,” Rayhana added.

A strange tree

The prickly pear tree is a strange, yet surprising tree at the same time. It's strange because it's thorny, beginning from its trunk and stems and ending with its leaves. Its thorns are thick and sharp, becoming thicker at the stems, and its leaves are thick and large, some of which are 40-50 cm.

Approximately 80 to 90 percent of a prickly pear tree consists of leaves, which are a food source for some animals who feed on them, not caring about the thorns. Prickly pear leaves are rich in protein, minerals and water.

Close relationship

What's surprising about this tree is its ability to endure long periods of drought and its ability to adapt itself to the environment in which it exists. It grows in hilly areas with heights and valleys, particularly rocky areas. No one knows which is tougher: the rock or the prickly pear and no one knows the nature of the relationship between them.

Prickly pear trees grow by themselves and are of secondary importance, despite the fact that everyone likes prickly pear fruit. Poor and fixed-income families recently have paid great attention to prickly pear trees.

In order to grow, prickly pear trees completely depend upon rain falling over intervals of time – man has nothing to do with their growth, as they store water in their leaves. When prickly pear fruit ripens, rural area residents collect them in baskets to be marketed in towns. Such locals can receive a good return with little effort or pain.