The Various uses for the Prickly Pear

Prickly pear hedge with Vaucluse House in the background

A hedge of prickly pear borders one side of the kitchen garden at Vaucluse House. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

One of the most interesting plants growing at Vaucluse House today is the Prickly Pear. This curious succulent had a variety of uses for the early colonists in Sydney.

The cochineal dye industry

Prickly Pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) was first introduced to Australia in 1788. The inventory of Captain Arthur Phillip aboard the First Fleet includes a selection of Prickly Pear from Brazil. Sir Joseph Banks had recommended the transportation of this plant to the colony. This is because Prickly Pear is host to the cochineal beetle, used to make red dye when crushed. This could make red clothes & garments like those worn by the British Army. Red fabric was also considered a symbol of wealth & power in this period.

A very tolerable fence

In 1834 colonist James Busby travelled to Spain to evaluate their method of wine production to improve NSW viticulture. His account, published in The Gardener’s Magazine, describes some of the fearsome hedges he encountered protecting vineyards & olive groves.

Monday, 3rd October - Mr. James Gordon having invited Dr. Wilson and myself to visit a vineyard belonging to him about four miles from Xeres accordingly started about one o’clock… The road lay between immense hedges of Prickly Pear planted on the top of high banks, making a fence which would prove a considerable impediment to the march of an army.1

Busby went on to recommend the Prickly Pear be planted as a hedge to deter thieves & wandering livestock from eating the contents of a garden. Thus, the re-created kitchen garden at Vaucluse is bordered by a thick Prickly Pear hedge.

A delicious dessert

Finally, Prickly Pear could also be used as a delicious dessert. Mrs Maclurcan’s Cookery Book (1894) describes how it was used to make jelly. After the careful removal of its prickles, the fruit can be cooked in sugar and lemon juice for four hours and then strained to produce a jelly-like liquid.2

Thus, Prickly Pear was of enormous significance in the colony of NSW. It had a variety of uses including the production of red dye, a formidable fence, and a delicious dessert. It is a great example of one of the many historic plants present at Vaucluse House.

Discover more ways to use the prickly pear at our other blog: The Cook and the Curator 

  • 1. James Busby, The Gardener’s Magazine and Register of Rural and Domestic Improvement, (London: Green & Longman, 1835) Vol 11, p. 92.
  • 2. Hannah Maclurcan, Mrs Maclurcan’s Cookery Book, (Townsville, 1894).
The dark yellows and oranges of the Prickly Pear fruit. Here we can see the inside of the fruit with its wets slimy center.
The inside of a Prickly Pear fruit. Photo © Jacqui Newling Sydney Living Museums

About the author

Cameron Allan, A Visitor Interpretation Officer at Sydney Living Museums in his uniform which is a white business shirt and he is in front of a book display at the Vaucluse House Shop

Cameron Allan

Visitor & Interpretation Officer

Cameron is a Visitor & Interpretation Officer at Sydney Living Museums.