Portraits of Wildflowers

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Archive for August 19th, 2011

“Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday” gives way to “Hello, ruby tuna.”

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By far the most common cactus in central Texas is the prickly pear, Opuntia engelmannii (with the variety lindheimeri seemingly more frequent in Austin than the other variety). The vernacular name prickly pear is a description, though not a great one, of the cactus’s fruit, which does taper at its attached end but isn’t really shaped like a pear, as you can see in this photograph. The prickly part, however, is accurate, and anyone who wants to get at the grainy fruit has to be careful to remove the tiny spines, which botanists call glochids; these have barbed tips, and once they get in your skin it’s hard to get them out. I know.

As for the cryptic title of today’s post, the first part is a line from an old song by the Rolling Stones. Mature prickly pear cactus fruits range in redness to a shade that can be described as ruby; the Rolling Stones’ song came into my head a decade ago when I started photographing these cactus fruits, and it still comes to mind when I take new pictures of them.

Okay, but what about the tuna? Did Texas suddenly get transported to the northern Pacific coast of the United States, and did its plants start producing not flowers but fish? Clearly not. No, tuna is the Spanish word for the fruit of the prickly pear, and even many English speakers in Texas know and use the term. My reference books say that Spanish acquired the word from the Taíno people of the Caribbean. Their word for the fruit survived; they themselves didn’t.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 19, 2011 at 5:39 AM

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