Israel, being on the “land bridge” that links it with Africa and Asia Minor, has always been well known for a number of biblical fruits. These include: the multi-seed pomegranates, grapes from which superb wines are now made; and of course several varieties of dates and olives. Another iconic fruit, although not native, comes from the genus opuntia and is known as the prickly pear or “Sabra” cactus.
The fruit received its “Israeli” name as a way to compare it to the personality of native born Israelis or Sabras; who are often said to be hard and prickly on the outside but sweet and soft on the inside.
Now, this national plant symbol is being threatened by the invasion of a species of parasitic aphid that has been attacking Sabra cactus plants in the far north of the country and threatens to spread over other parts of Israel as well.
The aphid, which scientists think may have “hitched a ride” into the country from abroad, attacks the cacti and secretes toxins into the tissues of the plant in order to make it easier for it to suck its food from the plant.
According to Zvi Mendel of the Volcani institute, a research center under the ministry of agriculture, “The aphid damages those parts of the plant which are vital for food supply and, in the end, the plant dies.”
The invading aphid species, Dactylopius opuntiae, inadvertently introduced to Israel from its native South America, has no natural predators in Israel, allowing it to multiply freely. The aphid invasion is currently confined to cacti located in Israel’s Hula Valley, according to an article in The Times of Israel.
By spraying the cacti with poisonous pesticides, Israeli agricultural experts are hoping to limit the spread of the parasite, which they think may have been brought to Israel by someone who purchased a cactus plant in Central or South America, the natural home of the cacti.
“It would be enough for him to have brought one leaf to Israel and planted it, and that is how the insect – which is difficult to see on the cactus – grew and spread,” says David Brand, the Jewish National Fund’s head forester.
Sabra fruit is harvested in late summer and is often sold in roadside fruit kiosks in both Israel and in the Palestinian Authority. The fruit is best served chilled and it is recommended that one wear gloves when peeling them to avoid being stuck by numerous cactus spines.
Read more on other iconic fruit indigenous to Israel and the Holy Land:
Photo of Aphid Giving Birth: Wikipedia