An evil bug is killing off our papoutsosyko, but vigilant measures can save them

One of Cyprus’ superfoods, the prickly pear or papoutsosyko, lending its flavour and health benefits to afficionados over centuries, is at risk from the fast-spreading mealy bug.

The invasive insect, ‘Pseudococcus’, first arrived in Cyprus in 2016 and is sucking the life out of the fruit-yielding cactus wherever they grow wild, although vigilant measures can save cultivated crops.

The papoutsosyko or ‘Opuntia ficus-indica’ is a cactus that grows well in hot and dry conditions, yielding flavourful fruit and showy flowers, and can be found nearly everywhere in rural Cyprus.

Generations of Cypriots have been harvesting the fruit and eating it peeled – carefully – and chilled, as a drop of coolness in the summer heat.

The papoutsosyko, rich in vitamin C, magnesium, potassium and fibre, is considered a natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant and may aid digestion and help boost heart health.

Close-up of a destroyed prickly pear cactus

Lyssandros Lyssandrides from the department of agriculture explained that the threatening pseudococcus, which only affects cacti, is actually indigenous to Mexico, but came to Cyprus in 2016, probably from Africa. It was first found in the Famagusta area in the north.

“If the papoutsosyko producers have taken the measures, they will be fine,” he said. “But the prickly pears in the wild, growing densely, where access is limited, will disappear,” he warned.

“It is certain that the insect will cover the whole of Cyprus. In Spain it spreads at a rate of 30km per year. They expected Cyprus to already be completely covered. The measures we took have greatly slowed it down.”

Lyssandrides explained that the insect is deliberately bred in Mexico “because it produces carmine, which is red and is used as a dye”.

They deliberately plant the papoutsosyko to breed the insect and produce carmine.

“But in parts of Africa they deliberately brought in pseudococcus to destroy cacti to create grazing pastures. This then resulted in it coming to Mediterranean areas, where the papoutsosyko is used as a fruit,” Lyssandrides said.

“The problem is that the insect creates a cotton-like wax that protects it. Carmine is very toxic for natural predators, mainly insects, which could otherwise fight it and bring equilibrium to nature.”

Lyssandrides said that this cotton-like substance also makes it very difficult to combat the insect with insecticides.

Since 2016 their efforts have been to slow down the infestation as much as possible and see if there are any natural predators that could restrict the destruction.

The problem is that prickly pears are “scattered in nature” and that “in general no one looks after them”.

“When someone locates the insect, they should cut off the affected pads and bury them,” he advised.

“Also, they should spray them at high pressure with water, which can include liquid soap and/or alcohol, because this will make the insects fall to the ground.”

The insects are flightless so long-range infestation is accomplished by transport of infested plant material. This is through natural carriers, such as seeds, wind, water, rain, birds, human beings, ants and farm animals.

The disease has spread. “It has covered the Famagusta area and has been found in various other areas in the Larnaca and Nicosia districts and now in some areas of the Limassol district,” he said.

Farmers with papoutsosyko crops can also take other measures.

“They should keep them well-pruned, so they don’t touch the ground. They should be well aired and have good light.”

The agriculture department has been looking into some other measures too.

“But in the experience of other countries, apart from the high cost, they are not effective.”

Regarding future plans, “we are looking for other, more resistant varieties.”

He added that some varieties are not affected, those without thorns, but these do not provide the same quality fruit.

The department has been continuously educating farmers with papoutsosyko crops.

“The papoutsosyko will survive with our measures. Everyone is being informed,” he said.

Solon Gregoriou in front of his prickly pear plantation, so far unimpacted by the disease

Solon Gregoriou, a refugee with a huge plantation of about 100 hectares, who won the Cyprus agricultural plantation award for 2019 for his bio prickly pears, told the Cyprus Mail that “the disease has not reached us.”

“I am prepared to tackle it, if and when it comes. I believe my plantation will not be destroyed. We have biological formulas to use and we will use them,” he said.

Georgiou, whose plantation is in Avlona in the Nicosia district, decided to grow prickly pears on such a large scale because he had land where nothing else could be grown easily.

“It is stony and had been uncultivated for many years.”

The papoutsosyko fruit is generally available from nearly the end of July until mid-September every year, without needing to be watered.

But the grower explained that he has prickly pears all year round because “we prune, water and take care of them.”

Peeled fruit at Solon Gregoriou’s plantation

Georgiou has experimented with other products, including sweets, juice, alcohol and oil from the pressed seeds.

“We don’t have the installations to go into production. We might in the future,” he added.

His produce is “only for local consumption”.

Georgiou explained that exporting from Cyprus was costly and the time it took to reach a consumer abroad was too long for the fruit to stay fresh.

Other countries, he said, can get to the market within two hours. “We cannot compete with other countries,” he added, but did not rule out exporting in the future.

Solon Gregoriou has a prickly pear plantation of about 100 hectares

This packed-with-nutrients sweet fruit can be eaten raw or used in smoothies and cooking. An easy way is to add the fresh pulp to yoghurt or sprinkle over salads. The more adventurous can make jams and purees to add to dishes and cakes.

But a word of warning, don’t eat too many. A safe quantity to consume is three to ten prickly pears per day, depending on the person. Anything more than that could lead mild to severe discomfort and constipation. And even a trip to the hospital.