All You Need To Know About Pereskia Aculeata

There is an unusual cactus that is technically not succulent because it has leaves. It has been labeled a weed in some countries and banned in others. It produces beautiful white and yellow flowers that bees just can’t resist. The most peculiar thing about this cactus is it yields edible fruits that have tiny leaves protruding from them. May we introduce you to the weird but wonderful Pereskia Aculeata Miller.

This scrambling shrub is a popular vegetable in parts of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais and can be found in street markets under the name ora-pro-nóbis. Depending on what continent you are in, Pereskia Aculeata also goes by the names blade-apple cactus, Barbados gooseberry, lemon vine, rose cactus, leaf cactus, Surinam gooseberry, Barbados shrub, primitive cactus, and Spanish gooseberry.

Some European authors refer to the plant as Peireskia, in honor of the French patron of botany Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) from which the genus got its name.

Origins And Naturalized Distribution

Hailing from the family Cactaceae, Pereskia aculeata sprouted its first roots in Central and South America as well as the Caribbean islands. It is an indigenous resident of Venezuela, Panama, Argentina, French Guiana, Suriname, Colombia, Brazil, Guyana, and Colombia.

This cactus was widely introduced into tropical regions and cultivated as a garden ornamental in Israel, the Philippines, India, and Bermuda as well as the coastal districts of northern Queensland and New South Wales in Australia. In 1979, gardeners in South Africa had to give up cultivating the plant when it was banned for invading and overwhelming the natural vegetation of KwaZulu Natal. It is currently one of 28 invasive plants on the alert list for environmental weeds, as it tends to form large, impenetrable clumps of vegetation.

pereskia aculeata hanging
Photo by @seijilubke via Instagram

A Close Look At This Misleadingly Attractive Cactus

As a young plant, the Pereskia Aculeata is a spiny, erect woody shrub with thin, non-succulent leaves. However, this deceiving cactus grows vine-like stems that can get up to 10 meters (33 feet) long and take over any vegetation in the area. It grows like a tree cluster and has stems that get to 3 cm (1.2 inches) in diameter. As a youngster, the plant has fleshy, hairless stems in the leaf forks that bear one to three smaller hooked thorns and are about 3-5 mm long (a bit over a 1/8th inch). As the plant gets older, the stems become woody and bear 1-5 cm (just under 1/2 inch to 2 inches) long clusters of straight spines. 

The leaves of the Pereskia aculeata are alternatively arranged and are borne from short stalks at the tips of branches, resembling cheerleader pompoms. The elliptic leaves have entire margins and pointed tips, growing between 4 and 7 cm (1 1/2 and 2 3/4 inches) long and 2-4 cm (3/4 and 1 1/2 inches) wide. The leaves are smooth and have a bright green color with a yellow outline, especially when growing in a sunny spot.

During the months of March to July, the Pereskia Aculeata produces numerous tufts of lemon-scented, white, cream, light pink, or yellow flowers. These semi-transparent flowers are produced in panicles and are 2.5–5 cm (0.98–1.97 in) in diameter.

The Pereskia Aculeata bears round, fleshy edible fruits during March and October that have several black seeds inside. The fruits start off covered in a green hue that becomes yellow and eventually turns orange when they are ripe. Fun fact: the fruits have tiny leafy projections popping out of them that fall off as the fruit ripens.

pereskia aculeata on the floor
Photo by @lricardovm via Instagram

Pereskia Aculeata Care

With native links to tropical and sub-tropical environments, Pereskia Aculeata prefers dry conditions. This easy-growing plant will flourish when neglected and does well in temperatures ranging from -3.9 °C (25 °F) to 10° C (50° F). When grown in a nursery, they prosper in temperatures of 37.22° C (99° F) during the day and 20° C (68° F) at night.

This drought-tolerant cactus favors light shade and will thrive under light canopies, open woodlands, dry forests, and rocky areas. Greenhouse experiments have found it highly responsive to light. It grows erect and compact under high light intensity, while under low light, the stems ascend higher and the leaves are larger and thinner. Extreme cold will cause the leaves to fall.

Although the Pereskia Aculeata can tolerate different types of soils, it has an affinity for well-draining, nutrient-rich soil. It prospers in soils with a pH range 0f 6 – 7.5. This plant’s shrubby growth habit does make it an unorthodox house plant, but it can be cultivated. The biggest threat this cactus faces is overwatering because it damages the roots. When repotting, they need to be left alone for a short period to avoid overstressing them. 

Pereskia aculeata propagates through seed dispersal or from fragments of half-ripe wood that have broken off of the main plant. The fleshy stems can take root if they fall onto the ground while the seeds are dispersed by birds and other animals that eat the fruits. Floods have also been known to spread seeds and stem segments.

Perks Of The Plant

The Pereskia Aculeata has been a source of food for centuries. The leaves are considered a nutritious vegetable and have appeared in many traditional Brazilian cuisines. Low-income communities consider the leaves of this plant as ‘meat of the poor’ due to the protein content that is higher than that found in beans, common corn, or kale. They are rich in minerals such as calcium, manganese, zinc, and magnesium. The leaves also contain high levels of total dietary fiber, folic acid as well as vitamins A and C.

The fruits can be eaten raw or added to a stew. They can also be preserved with sugar or used to make jam and jelly.

Besides being utilized as a food group, the leaves have been exploited in traditional Brazilian medicine as emollients. The high mucilaginous content is known to treat skin wounds and inflammation. There are reports that the leaves were used as a natural remedy for pain relief and as tonics to revitalize the body.

You may find the borders marked by the aggressive spine system of the Pereskia aculeata when planted as an impenetrable fence. It also acts as a rootstock in nurseries to graft other less vigorous cacti.

The Pereskia aculeata may seem stubborn to control, but it clearly has its benefits. It’s definitely a one-of-a-kind cactus.

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