Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Two tuna takes today, Tuesday

with 38 comments

Tuna is the Aztec-to-Spanish-to English name for the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. Tunas start out green and ripen to various shades of red. Here are two rather abstract takes on Opuntia engelmannii from my neighborhood on August 3rd. In the first, I focused on the tip of an adjacent spine. In the second and much closer view of a different tuna, you see a clump of the short spines called glochids (with the ch pronounced k, as in other words of Greek origin like chasm, stomach, and psychology). Shadows, which are many a photographer’s delight, including mine, play a role in both of these portraits.

Here’s a little-known fact from American history: I certainly wasn’t taught in elementary school, high school, or even college, that before the end of slavery in the United States some free blacks (many actually of mixed race) owned slaves themselves. Hard to believe, isn’t it? And yet it turns out to be true: a thoroughly footnoted 1985 book confirms the practice in one state, South Carolina, via census data, bills of sale, wills, letters, and other documents. It just goes to show that people are people.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 18, 2020 at 4:30 AM

38 Responses

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  1. That’s a pretty pair of prickles, and I particularly like your framing in the first.


    August 18, 2020 at 5:49 AM

    • And for once none of the prickles, especially the glochids, ended up in me. For pictures like these I have to get low and move in close, so the danger of ending up with something unwanted in my skin is real.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 18, 2020 at 6:30 AM

  2. You certainly got to the point with that first photo, but it’s the second that I favor. It’s hard to break through prejudices and experience to make glochids seem attractive — even beautiful — but you did with that one. The asymmetical placement of the three little spines (and the shadows of the others) is a plus.

    After moving to Liberia, I learned some things that weren’t in my history textbooks.The freed slaves who settled there did retain a good bit from life in this country: their constitution and form of government, their currency, their language. Homes in Monrovia (named for James Monroe) were modeled after the antebellum homes of the South.

    Unfortunately, those settlers also took slavery with them, and their willingness to capture and enslave tribal peoples from the interior set up a division between ‘Americo-Liberians’ and the tribes that contributed to multiple coups and two civil wars: wars exacerbated by inter-tribal rivalries.. I missed the war, but experienced enough on my last visit to know I never wanted to see such things come to this country. Now? I’m keeping a close watch.


    August 18, 2020 at 6:23 AM

    • I knew that Liberia was set up as a nation for former slaves from America (hence the names Monrovia and Liberia). I didn’t know about homes modeled on those from the antebellum South, nor about the resettled former slaves instituting slavery themselves. It’s easy to understand how the existing tribes would have resisted that practice, even to the point of coups and civil wars. However, my (admittedly quite limited) understanding is that even before the advent of Europeans in Africa, some tribes practiced slavery. Ethnicity seems to have been a much greater factor in pre-European African slavery than what we would call race per se, given that everyone was black. I added the sentence “It just goes to show that people are people” because tyrannical behavior isn’t the province of any one group or race, in spite of what some American ideologues keep insisting. One need look no further than our own lifetimes to see the horrors that some Chinese inflicted on others during the [anti-]Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, and similarly in Cambodia for the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 18, 2020 at 6:51 AM

      • It’s a fact that tribal rivalries existed long before the Europeans showed up, as did slavery. The imposition of geo-political boundaries atop tribal loyalties caused no end of trouble. I lived among the Kpelle. Divided by such boundaries, ‘Liberian Kpelle’ and ‘Guinea Kpelle’ became accepted terms, but the tribe always took precedence for the Kpelle themselves.

        The depth of tribal prejudices came home to me the day I was called to prepare a body for burial because the patient was from a tribe that none of the hospital workers would touch. Needless to say, that’s an experience I’ve never forgotten, for several reasons.


        August 18, 2020 at 7:10 AM

        • If you haven’t already written about that experience and others, perhaps you should. “The Task at Hand” would be a good venue for it.

          Similar to what you’ve said about the Kpelle, the Kurds find themselves split among what are now Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Kurds long for an independent Kurdistan to be re-created.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 18, 2020 at 7:20 AM

    • As for nature photography, keeping the tips of the long spines in focus wasn’t easy. There’s one picture I particularly like and would have shown except that the focus fell a little below the tip, and so the image seemed flawed. In the second picture, the rich deep red got my attention. I used to think of such a fruit as a “ruby tuna,” with my mind apparently influenced by “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday….”

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 18, 2020 at 6:57 AM

  3. I knew next to nothing about prickly pear when I moved to Oklahoma, but I’ve learned to appreciate its beauty and beastly-ness in the landscape. I understand the “tuna” makes some lovely jellies, though I’ve never had the delight of having any.

    I have been enjoying your daily quotes, history facts, and thoughts for the day. There is so much I either missed in school or it was never presented. At this point in my life I an intrigued and fascinated with history and thought-provoking facts. It’s quite true that, “census data, bills of sale, wills, letters, and other documents” reveal much about our ancestors that was not discussed or noted in family gatherings. Forrest has discovered some eye-opening facts about his family history, turning up many documents in his research. It was also interesting just how much we learned having gone through boxes of old photos and letters, when his mother passed away last year, that his grandparents and great-grandparents kept, yet never talked about. I find it all fascinating, and it helps to put together pieces of family and community history and trends of the times, bringing a better understanding.


    August 18, 2020 at 7:55 AM

    • Thanks for letting me know you’ve been enjoying the little extras I’ve been closing my posts with. In recent years I’ve often thought that if I had it to do over again, I’d go into history as a career. In any case, those of us who didn’t study history formally can still read books and do research over the Internet. There are also family archives to be delved into, as you say you guys have recently been doing. Maybe you’ll incorporate some of that into future posts. I think many of us don’t ask our elders enough questions, and then suddenly they’re gone. It’s looking like old documents and photographs will prove more durable than the digital files we accumulate in their place these days.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 18, 2020 at 3:32 PM

  4. I just have increased my vocabulary and learned that there two meanings to the word tuna. Thank you too for the interesting historical report on black slave owners. After many African countries gained their independence, the new indigenous masters treated their own people in the same way as their white governors during the colonial era.

    Peter Klopp

    August 18, 2020 at 8:41 AM

    • I didn’t know the cactus kind of tuna when I was growing up in New York, but the word is pretty common across the southwestern United States, although by no means do all English speakers here know it. If you look back at Linda’s (shoreacres) comment, you’ll find more to add to your pertinent observation about Africa.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 18, 2020 at 3:37 PM

  5. Huh … interesting. I will never look at a prickly pear cactus fruit the same. I don’t know why but my first thought on the second was ‘belly button’.


    August 18, 2020 at 12:17 PM

  6. I guess if REO Speedwagon were around today, they could title an album, “You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Tuna.”

    Johnny Crabcakes

    August 19, 2020 at 2:41 AM

    • That’s a good emendation. You’ve reminded me that there used to be an art gallery in New York City called “A Bird Can Fly but a Fly Can’t Bird.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 19, 2020 at 5:05 AM

  7. I’ve never found a tuna bone in a tuna salad sandwich and would hope not to find a bone in a salad based on this tuna either.
    I like your focus on the spine in the first image.

    Steve Gingold

    August 19, 2020 at 3:44 AM

    • Getting any glochids or spines in your mouth—or worse, your stomach—would be horrific. Perish the thought.
      In the first picture the focus came out exactly where I intended. In another picture that I conceived well, I unfortunately missed the tip and therefore felt I couldn’t show the image.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 19, 2020 at 5:13 AM

  8. I think I recall having read the term “glochids” in one of your posts, as well as the term “achenes.” I prefer the big red closeup of the glochid in the second picture to the more abstract view of a spine and tuna. But to each their own. As for free Black masters and slaves owned in South Carolina, that is new to me. Texas, of course, was founded on the “right” to own people as property, after Mexico had outlawed slavery and given Tejas a few years to free its slaves. I have a Kindle book which compiles the results of a WPA project titled “Dem Days Was Hell: Recorded Testimonies of Former Slaves.” You learn something new every day, from the most diverse sources. I certainly hope the comment “It just goes to show that people are people” doesn’t indicate an acceptance of slavery or genocide.


    August 19, 2020 at 10:53 AM

    • In certain circles in America it has become fashionable—more than that, actually an attitude akin to religious dogmatism—to single out people of one and only one race as having caused all the troubles in the world. My comment at the end of the post was an empirical statement that no large group of people is any more or less capable of evil than any other group; all it takes it the right circumstances for the evil to become manifest. Some who claim to be fighting evil are especially prone to turn to evil themselves.

      The book I linked to was limited to South Carolina but, black ownership of slaves was by no means limited to that state. It occurred in other southern states and occasionally even in northern ones.

      You’re right that I’ve used the terms glochids and achenes in other posts. Just this morning I had to get some glochids out of my clothing after I inadvertently backed into a prickly pear.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 19, 2020 at 3:41 PM

      • I think the term “race” is a social construct but we are all one species, Homo sapiens, although at times I think that Homo stolidus(or some other well chosen Latin term) is growing in numbers, and our species might go the way of the Neanderthals. But have to agree that any group of humans can commit genocide or inhumane crimes against any other group of humans that are defined as “other” or less human. Which is probably why I’m attracted to wildflowers and wildlife photography.


        August 24, 2020 at 10:10 AM

        • That’s why I’ve stuck mostly to nature photography here. I’ve taken more pictures lately than I can show, even at the pace of one a day.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 24, 2020 at 10:36 AM

  9. Sigh. White people still trying to weasel out of culpability for 250 years of slavery and oppression.

    Khürt Williams

    August 19, 2020 at 10:41 PM

  10. One of my kids brought home a prickly pear fruit from the corner grocery to try. Texture and flavor is delightful, but the seeds are too big to bite yet too small to spit. So they go down the gullet too.

    Interesting tidbit about slavery. Some (including me) say that slavery never ended, we simply quit doing it to our fellow species. Hundreds of other species today must endure our perceived need to enslave and exploit them for our sole benefit — much of which is entirely unnecessary. You are right: people are still people.


    August 20, 2020 at 8:18 AM

    • I think the only time I ever tried prickly pear fruit was on a train in Mexico in the 1970s. You’re right that the seeds don’t make for convenience; I guess they were/are intended to go down an animal’s gullet and out the other end, along with fertilizer.

      I’m fine with vegan dishes, but many people feel they have to have meat every day or even at every meal.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 20, 2020 at 11:20 AM

  11. I like the brevity of ‘tuna’ opposed to ‘prickly pear’ and will be using it in future, thank you. Mind you, I can see it causing some strange looks from others when I use the term, but then again, it’s not unusual for me to get strange looks 🙂


    August 20, 2020 at 11:28 PM

    • Then what’s one more set of strange looks after all those others? You can always point people to the second of the two entries in the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary at


      That entry is, however, marked “North American.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 21, 2020 at 5:31 AM

    • While I was looking at that website I noticed something I’d previously missed: the option to consult a Spanish dictionary. When I looked up tuna there, I found yet another meaning, one that’s apparently limited to Spain, where the word designates ‘a musical group made up of university students who sing popular songs while accompanying themselves on various instruments, especially stringed instruments, and who wear period costumes that they top off with a cape.’ Live and learn.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 21, 2020 at 6:58 AM

  12. Opuntias are great subjects and I didn’t know the fruits are called tunas. I like that. 🙂 As for the slave-owning, I did know it but learned about only in recent years. Many indigenous tribes out here on the West coast owned slaves, too. It’s more widespread than we might think, a sad commentary on humanity.


    August 22, 2020 at 11:43 AM

    • We could say that with Opuntia we get right to the point.
      Now you’ve got two kinds of tunas in your word arsenal.
      A sad commentary indeed, and yet for thousands of years cultures all over the world have been practicing slavery. That’s why I closed by saying “It just goes to show that people are people.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 22, 2020 at 5:14 PM

  13. Bring on the shadows! Great shots Steve. There’s no messing with those prickly pears ..


    August 25, 2020 at 3:03 PM

  14. I always forget what tuna means in this context, and think you’re going to show a fish. 🙂 The first image is absolutely stunning. I love everything about it.


    September 20, 2020 at 9:12 AM

    • If it weren’t for my contact with Latin America and Spanish, the fish kind of tuna would be my primary (and probably only) one, too. Like you, the first photo here struck me as artistic.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 20, 2020 at 9:56 AM

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