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Posted on Aug 27, 2015

A stickler for gardening

You could say Quincy’s Jose Blancas has grown a thorny reputation.
For seven years, the retired man has been growing prickly pear cactus – nopales or nopalitos as they are called in Spanish – in two backyard gardens. He’s become known around town for his fruitful and dedicated efforts.
“I was at the clinic one day and some guy said to me, ‘I heard some old guy grows cactus around here,” Blancas said. “I told him ‘That old guy is me.’”
Getting started was easy. Blancas took home a section of a cactus from an area store and buried it halfway in the ground. Within a few short weeks that section of cactus already had grown roots. Oftentimes, roots can grow out of the cactus’ thorns. The thorns soften and root into the ground to grow another cactus.
It takes about a year to grow a full cactus plant, Blancas said. The cactus fruit grows on top of the cactus. The fruit contains the seeds. When the seed is ready to plant, the fruit comes off easily or falls to the ground. With that, a new generation of cactus plants can be planted from seed.
In a dry, hot climate such as the Quincy Valley, the cactus plant thrives. In a regular growing year, Blancas waters his cactus only monthly. When it is especially hot out, he waters the plants twice a month.
The prickly pear cactus can be planted in the spring after the ground thaws. In Quincy, it is best to plant the cactus in an area where it will get the most light; planting them on the south side of a home may be best. By the time the winter arrives, the plant is able to stand up to cold temperatures.
You can cut off the sections of cactus as it grows and it will regenerate. To do this, Blancas uses two long makeshift tools. He has a pole with graspers at the end, and he has another pole with a knife on the end for slicing off the cactus.
The cactus is a misunderstood plant in most parts of the United States. While many people shy away from the plant because of its large thorns, those thorns keep pests and bugs from eating the plant. The cactus is born insect-repellent, Blancas added. He does not use any insecticides on his cactus gardens.
The prickly pear cactus is also an edible food. The flowers, stems and fruit of the cactus are edible. The plant can be eaten raw, boiled, sautéed or grilled. In Central America and in some areas of the southwestern United States, people have used the cactus in recipes for generations.
There are many ways to prepare a cactus once it is grown and ready to eat or drink in a smoothie. Blancas prefers to cut up the cactus and fry it lightly in oil. He also adds eggs, onion, tomatoes, cilantro and chile sauce.
The cactus leaf is promoted for treating diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and hangovers, according to the Mayo Clinic. The plant also has anti-inflammatory properties, according to preliminary studies.
Blancas loves gardening, and he loves his cactus gardens.
“I am happy gardening out here,” he said. “My family wants me to put in a sprinkler system. I told them no, because then I won’t have anything to do.”

~Tammara Green/QVPR contributor