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GARDENING CACTUS FRUIT EDIBLE BUT NOT ALL IS TASTY.

Byline: JOSHUA SISKIN

Q. I have an Epiphyllum hybrid cactus with beautiful flowers and red fruit. Is the fruit edible?

- Ilse Kliemann, West Hills

A. All cactus fruit are edible, although on many cactus species, the fruit have no taste or they are spiny and full of seeds, which makes their consumption a challenge. In the case of Epiphyllum, a spineless cactus that consists solely of floppy, often deeply scalloped, green cladodes (stems), the fruit tends to be sweeter if it is the result of cross-pollination between two different Ephiphyllum species or clones.

A close relative of Epiphyllum is the vining pitaya cactus (Hylocereus and Selenicereus species), whose so-called dragon fruit have attractive magenta or yellow skin, and whose flavor varies from bland to magnificent, depending on the cultivar.

Epiphyllum is commonly called orchid cactus, which refers more to its conditions for growth than to its flowers. Epiphyllums, like orchids, are epiphytes, which means they live in trees.

Specifically, they feel most at home in tropical rain forests where, in the moldy compost that collects in branch angles and crotches where limbs meet, their seeds can germinate.

Epiphyllum flowers, which will remind you of water lilies or fireworks explosions in white, pink, red, lavender, orange or yellow, reach up to 10 inches in diameter. The plants do not bloom reliably from one year to the next and, although tropical, are stimulated to flower by a certain measure of winter cold.

They prefer fertilizer that is low in nitrogen and should be fed monthly, or given slow release fertilizer at longer intervals, during spring and summer.

Epiphyllums need protection from direct sun and are best grown under shade cloth or where light is filtered through overhanging tree branches. They are ideal plants for hanging baskets or tall flower pots whose sides their stems can flop over as they grow.

Soil should be a fast draining mix of ingredients such as washed sand, peat moss, and compost. Propagation is ridiculously easy. Break off a stem, let it dry out in the open air for a few days, dip the bottom end in rooting hormone (or not), and then insert it into your potting soil.

I spoke to David Bernstein, proprietor of California Nursery Specialties Cactus Ranch on Saticoy Street just west of Tampa Boulevard in Reseda, about edible cactus. He extolled the smooth, baseball-size fruit (with minuscule, kiwi-like seeds) of the Peruvian apple (Cereus peruviana).

This arboreal cactus is distinguished by its many columnar limbs, blue to green in color, that may reach 10 feet in height. Indian fig or prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) has fruit of a similar appearance except they have spines and large seeds.

Bernstein also mentioned the edible pads of prickly pear, referred to as nopales, that have a taste somewhere between spinach and cucumber, a mucilaginous texture, and may be cooked with omelettes or meat or eaten fresh in salad. Young pads, once outer cuticle and spines have been removed, are tastiest.

Cactus and other succulent plants come to mind whenever brush fires flare. Bernstein told me about a house that had cactus, agaves and aloes around it and emerged from a surrounding blaze with little damage.

The plants themselves were burnt but the house remained intact. He suggested that succulents may be more fire retardant than certain native plants.

Aloes, by the way, are not only fire resistant but have a gooey sap that acts as a salve for sunburn. "It's a savvy plant," Bernstein joked.

Q. I am interested in doing a tropical look for my back yard, despite the harsh weather of the high desert. I was wondering if you could give me some ideas for plants that would give us the tropical feel we are looking for. We plan on using the Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) as well as the windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) but are looking for shrubs and flowering plants as well.

- Karen Tillquist, Palmdale

A. The plumed flowers of yellow bird of paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii) will definitely provide a tropical look as will mesquite trees (Prosopis species), with their lush green foliage and black trunks. Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is an excellent choice and fragrant star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), as well as butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), blooming in pink, lavender, purple or white, should also grow well for you. Although somewhat marginal for the Antelope Valley, you might also be able to succeed, in the shade, with kaffir lily (Clivia miniata), calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) and Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica). For the sun, sky blue cape plumbago and orange or yellow trumpet vines (Tecoma species) are also marginal but worth the risk.

Many types of bamboo have a tropical aura and most are cold tolerant but, in the high desert, they benefit from shade during part of the day and, if possible, regular overhead misting. Last but not least, keep daylilies (Hemerocallis) in mind. They make a lush and colorful ground cover with yellow, orange, salmon, burgundy, or bronze-red flowers.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) Although all cactus fruit is edible, not all of it is tasty. The pads of a young prickly pear, above, can be eaten raw. At right, bird of paradise gives a tropical flair to gardens.

(3 -- color) no caption (bamboo)

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Title Annotation:HOME+GARDEN
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 5, 2009
Words:885
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