Forgotten miracle crop: little interest in the Maltese prickly pear

Malta’s over-abundant prickly pear is the ugly duckling of agriculture but two agricultural scientists argue that there is gold in this most resistant of Maltese crop

Despite the prickly pear being one of the most common and most resistant plants in the country, nobody has emulated foreign countries’ endeavours to capitalise on this ‘Maltese’ fruit
Despite the prickly pear being one of the most common and most resistant plants in the country, nobody has emulated foreign countries’ endeavours to capitalise on this ‘Maltese’ fruit

One of Malta’s most loved and ubiquitous of fruits is in abundant supply and yet severely underutilised: the prickly pear – whose paddle-like leafs are perhaps the most illustrative images of the Maltese countryside – remains untapped as a commercial resource by farmers while foreign entrepreneurs have already realised its potential.

The scientist Carmel Briffa and his apprentice, Ian Sammut, work at the National Agricultural Research and Development Centre at Ghammieri. Briffa, a technical advisor to farmers and to crop and fruit amateurs, is in charge of the fruit tree nurseries belonging to the government. Both share a love for the prickly pear: Briffa completed a study on the potential of the plant in 2005 and Sammut is currently working on a Master’s degree in an effort to document all the different strains of the plant in Malta.

But the two experts said that despite the prickly pear being one of the most common and most resistant plants in the country, nobody has emulated foreign countries’ endeavours to capitalise on this ‘Maltese’ fruit.

Ian Ciantar and Carmel Briffa
Ian Ciantar and Carmel Briffa

“Believe it or not,” Sammut says, “for a long time there was a social stigma surrounding the prickly pear. It used to be considered as poor man’s food.”

Sammut explained how the fruit used to be employed as fodder to pigs and cattle so the animals would produce dung rich in nitrogen, a nutritious fertiliser. The prickly pear used to grow in pig pens too and in shallow fields because it is a very resistant and rapidly-germinating plant. “This is why it’s such a sustainable product. This is the only Maltese fruit that is this invulnerable.”

Briffa said that this was not the only reason why its underutilised. “Thorns are a major deterrent. Farmers do not how to deal with the plant, they do not have the necessary tools or know-how to do so.”

Instead, prickly pears are relegated to being used as windbreakers for fields and borderlines between main roads and farmland, as well as fertiliser. “There are very few farmers, perhaps no more than three, who brave the thorns and sell it on the streets.”

Malta’s most common types of prickly pear are known as the white, yellow and red. And although the names (bajda, safra, hamra) for these strains are not in common usage, Briffa says they reflect the history of the plant. The white strain is referred to as ‘the French’, a reference to the white flag they held up to give up Malta to the British in 1802 – conversely, the red refers to the British army’s uniform. But there are many other strains that are endemic to Malta.

Despite growing on the Maltese islands for 368 years, the miracle aspect is yet to be exploited. “We know that the prickly pear has come all the way from Mesoamerica,” Briffa said. “That’s why Mexico has a prickly pear on its flag. The Knights brought it all the way from the Caribbean in 1650 but the first written reference to the plant in Malta is in Francesco Agius de Soldanis’s historical magnum opus sometime around 1750.”

The prickly pear grew so fiercely and abundantly in Malta since that time that for a while it featured on Malta’s coat of arms as well. The Maltese artist Esprit Barthet had invited his students sometime before 1975 to come up with a design for a new passport. One of his students, an assistant general manager at the newly-nationalised Mid-Med Bank, came up with the design that included a luzzu, a shovel and a winnowing fork, the sun and a prickly pear plant. Dom Mintoff himself, chose it as the second coat of arms of the new Republic of Malta.

But despite this rich history, even the fresh summer batches of the prickly pear fruit that are available in most supermarkets in the country are not even Maltese, but imported products. “It’s ridiculous,” Briffa said. “Prickly pears are everywhere you look in Malta.” Entrepreneurs have not yet invested in the plant and do not yet know how to market the fruit, Briffa says. The Sicilians on the other hand, are using Malta’s very own prickly pear strains to make jams, syrups, drinks, even cosmetics, and they are making a great deal of money. “They learnt how to develop the product to its utmost commercial potential,” Briffa said.

One study by the University of Catania has shown the prickly pear to be a very strong product in the Sicilian market with highly profitable results. A recent study led by the University of Malta even discovered that chemicals extracted from the fruit could help delay the two major diseases of ageing: Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. No wonder it is dubbed “miracle crop” in dry regions.

“In Malta farmers are not yet ready to invest in the prickly pear so they just plant it in dry land and not as a major crop. Abroad, there are farmlands completely committed to the plant, planted in very fertile land and irrigated regularly to bear the healthiest fruit,” Briffa said. Today there is intensive pressure for every piece of farmland to provide a marketable, profitable product. Sammut argued that Malta is lucky to have nothing less than 15 strains of prickly pear. “Sicily has just five, three of which are Maltese.”

His study will be dedicated to document all these strains and what their particular properties are in an effort to publicise the miracle crop. Briffa said that with climate change, increased construction and rising infrastructure, the prickly pear could play an important role. “Less rain means that dry-resistant crops like the prickly pear are very valuable. But the way we are building does not incentivise water conservation either.”

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