Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

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

with 18 comments

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

18 Responses

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  1. What an astonishing and stunning image!


    August 19, 2011 at 5:59 AM

  2. I’m pleased that you find it stunning. I was not so much stunned as stuck: I came away with several glochids in my skin and clothing, proof that I was the person who got in there and took the picture.

    This was in your part of town, by the way, in the Zilker Nature Preserve.

    Steve Schwartzman

    August 19, 2011 at 7:01 AM

  3. This cactus would fall into that category:

    Who was the first person that decided that was food?

    Nice textures in your photo.


    August 19, 2011 at 7:34 AM

    • The texture that you see on the surface of this tuna is—I suppose not surprisingly—similar to the texture of a prickly pear pad.

      I’ve thought about the food thing in general. The only way we collectively found out which plants are poisonous is because someone had to try each one.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 19, 2011 at 7:56 AM

  4. you know another similarity to the pear is its texture…at least in the picture. 🙂


    August 19, 2011 at 7:38 AM

    • You and Dawn both picked up on the texture; I’d never thought about comparing to the texture of a real pear. Maybe prickly pear is a better name than I thought.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 19, 2011 at 11:14 AM

  5. Striking shot Steve.


    August 20, 2011 at 12:08 AM

  6. […] The previous post included a side view of the rich red tuna of a prickly pear cactus, Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri. The view from above is quite different, because the top of each tuna is shallowly concave, in contrast to the convexity of the fruit as a whole. The mottling and cracking of the wide depression at the top often creates an abstract design that I find fascinating. Click the thumbnail below for an isolated enlargement of the pattern at the center of this tuna’s top: […]

  7. Nice Pic Steve… Interesting facts too… I did not know they are also called Tuna…
    The color composition of this pic is brilliant.


    August 20, 2011 at 8:43 PM

  8. This is beautiful. You have some wonderful images on your site Steve.


    August 23, 2011 at 7:37 PM

  9. Nice shot! I like all your prickly pears photos. I am just down the road from you in San Antonio. We had great flowers in the Spring, but it’s been a tough summer! –Tom


    August 24, 2011 at 1:11 PM

    • Thanks. At least you had a good spring; we didn’t even get that before the drought carried us into the summer.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 24, 2011 at 2:17 PM

  10. Yikes. I can see how these do get embedded into the skin.


    December 20, 2011 at 7:16 AM

  11. […] near the Austin-Pflugerville boundary line, that I found the specimen shown here, with its one dark red tuna peeking out at the upper right. In order to get this view I had to make my way gingerly through a […]

  12. […] know that the cactus often attracts certain bugs. This is one of those, Narnia femorata, on a tuna, or fruit of the prickly pear cactus, in the Zilker Nature Preserve seven years ago today. The bug […]

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