Of all the plants, in all the world, you have to study those with GLOCHIDS. Most of the plants have glochids, a lot of the fruits have glochids, and even some of the seed have glochids. When ever I get glochids in my fingers, I invariably curse Alan, the TSG Chairman/Editor, and a friend of 30 years, as I always think, that I am collecting the seed for him personally, which of course is not the case.
Producing seed has 3 phases
1: collecting the fruit
2: separating the seed from the fruit
3: cleaning the seed
Collecting the fruit
Tools of some sort are usually necessary, although some fruits can be collected with bare hands. Tools that I most commonly use include screwdriver, large tweezers or forceps. The tool depends on the species. For Airampoa I use tweezers/forceps, for Austrocylindropuntia I use any, usually screwdriver for floccosa or lagopus as they are “harmless” or unarmed, this is just to separate the fruit from the plants and then you can pick up the fruit with bare hands. In June 2010, with Chris Sherrah, we collected five plastic bags full of fruit, three of floccosa and two of lagopus (fig. 1) as well as taking our photos, in two and a half hours at BB 774 south of Macusani. For the vestita group, vestita, shaferi, teres, etc, I use tweezers/forceps since the fruit has many glochids. Exaltata is the worst of all. It is completely covered in glochids and the plants are also very spiny and difficult to navigate, I have only ever collected quantities of seed of this species once, in November 2010, and will probably never do it again. Tephrocactus s.s. dehisce with a lateral split and fold out flat, but are very spiny, though not with glochids. I believe the seed have glochids, but I might be wrong. It is necessary to use tweezers/forceps to collect the fruit, although you can collect with bare fingers, but you need to be very careful, and you end up with a very spiny bag, which requires careful handling. Cumulopuntia are somewhat similar to Austrocylindrodropuntia floccosa to collect and clean. Often it is possible to flick the fruit out with the screwdriver or a pocket knife and then collect bare handed. Opuntia s.s., usually here, only sulphurea, is rather like the vestita group. Pereskia have two different types of fruit, the larger Pereskia sacharosa is like a small pear, whilst P. diaz-romeroana is like blackcurrants. You have to dodge the spines and glochids of the plants, but can collect the fruits with bare hands. Quiabentia is rather like A. exaltata in that the plant is very spiny and the fruits are difficult to get to.
Fig. 1. Bagged fruits of A. floccosa and A. lagopus
Separating the seed from the fruit
Again, rather like collecting the fruits, separating the seeds from the fruits requires different techniques. The tools I use are my camping knife, fork and spoon set, which is usually on my belt. Austrocylindropuntia floccosa is easy, cut in half lengthways, then insert the teaspoon and scoop out the pulp. I usually do the driving whilst “in the field”, but with Chris Sherrah, he was the driver, so I was able to clean the seed whilst he drove. The fruit skins were spread over hundreds of kilometres from the asphalt south of Macusani to the Nasca valley a distance of almost 1000 km. A. lagopus, has a thin fruit skin, and sometimes requires rehydrating. I separate the seed by squeezing them from the fruit, like toothpaste. These skins almost lasted to Lima. The 5 bags took 3 or 4 days to separate the seeds from the fruits. For the A. vestita group, I use the fork to hold the fruit whilst I cut it in half and then, with fork and knife, separate the seed from the fruit. Care is necessary with this group; it is not for doing on the fly like the previous species. A. exaltata is like the vestita group except I use fork and spoon to separate the seeds from the fruit. Cumulopuntia is like A. floccosa except you need to hold carefully to separate the seed from the fruit because of the glochids on the skin. For Tephrocactus s.s. you can hold the spines with fingers and flick out the seeds with the point of the knife, although it is very time consuming. Opuntia sulphurea is like the A. vestita group. The two types of Pereskia are like A. floccosa and A. lagopus except with P. diaz-romeroana, you can’t squeeze like toothpaste, you have to split the fruit with the knife and separate from the skin with the blade of the knife.
Cleaning the seed
I use canvas bags, which I had made here in Sucre. The seed and pulp are placed in the bag, not too much per bag. The bags are usually hung from the handle above the door, but if they are “leaking” pulp, I cover with a plastic bag. If the pulp is fairly solid, squash with the hands, this also helps it to start decomposition/fermentation. Then wash, wash, wash, wash and wash again. You cannot wash too much. Wash even if the seed is dry, since the pulp which would have dried on the seed, has a germinating inhibitor. When you first wash the seed, the liquid is thick and slimy, but this gets thinner with each subsequent wash. When I think it is almost pure water coming from the bag, I dry the bag, on the dashboard in the sun, turning a few times. Then the dried seed can be transferred to paper bags and stored for counting into smaller bags. My three children usually do the last part, although they are not allowed to handle the seeds with glochids. They first counted seeds in 1999 when aged 8, 5 and 3 although the son managed to count 100 seeds in a 25 seed portion of Cumulopuntia pentlandii (aka boliviana), but at 5 years old I didn’t say too much. Now they do better and I don’t check their work. Although it’s supposed to be usually cheap using child labour, in my case it is expensive, since I give them ALL the money gained from seed sales.
From the opening lines, you will gather that I am a true Humphrey Bogart fan. I am also a Cagney fan and often when high in the Andes, I will say “Top of the world ma!” a line from “White Heat” starring James Cagney.
This article was originally published in Tephrocactus Study Group (the 'TSG Journal'), March 2011, Vol. 17, No. 1, pages 4,5 and 8. © TSG and Brian Bates.