Crocuses, Blackberries and Cacti — Nature’s Wild Wild Story

I went for a leisurely jog this morning. My first of 2021! Although today started off at a crisp 40 degrees, I could feel the slight warmth of the sun shining on my back. Its April intensity seemed to emit much warmer rays than that of the dead of winter.

My slow jog ended with an unplanned, yet extra push to sprint up 2 short hills and a flight of blue fieldstone steps. My stride didn’t quite match the rise of the steps, so I had to slightly jump-skip the steps two at a time.

I stopped at the top of the hill, huffing and puffing. Walking it out, my legs started to feel like jello, not entirely wobbly like it’s-going-to-slide-off-the-plate kind, so I walked it off. I felt good!

Heading back home through a dormant winter field, on a post workout high, I noticed nature’s first sign of Spring — blooming flowers. A few little thumb-height lavender crocuses with bright yellow centers stood out in the dry, wheat-colored grass field and fallen copper-tinted maple tree leaves . I also noticed other purple flowers bursting from little mounds of shiny dark green leaves. These were wild. Crocuses, on the other hand, are flowers that are typically planted in people’s yards. Perhaps crocuses grew wild as well.

Last summer, around the perimeter of this same field, I had stumbled across wild blackberry bushes. They were indeed edible (I wholly trusted our neighbors on this one), so I picked a few and popped them in my mouth. A couple turned into a handful of berries. Frankly, they were the juiciest, sweetest and most flavorful blackberries I’d ever tasted! Habitually I would have picked more but I felt content after my taste buds and belly delighted in a few. I was cool with continuing on my way and took note to return later for more. I envisioned using these dark gem-like fruits to adorn a custard tart or mixing them with a citrus vinaigrette and peppery green arugula salad for dinner.

The August blackberries and April crocuses reminded me of the cyclic and nurturing nature of our natural surrounding environment. The crocuses grew and seemed to thrive in the middle of a neglected open field with no help from myself or my neighbors. They seemed to be in their ideal conditions, as with the blackberries. The blackberry bushes not only grew but produced nutritious berries, so much so that I felt content after eating just a few. I realized how “full” I felt after eating those berries that summer day. They had grown and flourished on their own, taking in the optimal blend of sun, air, water and dirt to create robust and prime berries. All that nourishment transferred to me one thumb-size berry at a time, thus it didn’t take many.

I had a similar connect-the-dots moment when I first learned about Fat Leaf Water and learned more about the primary ingredient, cactus.

The cactus is built to sustain some of the harshest climates on Earth, yet they seem to not only survive but thrive in the desert. It is a plant that has figured out how to collect, absorb, store and use what little it is given. It is uniquely efficient in doing so.

Water evaporates quickly in the arid air and dry grounds of the desert. The spiky spines, known to keep predators away, also help to collect dew with their special cluster of grooves that pulls water droplets into the plant body before it evaporates. The spines additionally break up the air-flow around the plant and actually provide some shade to reduce water loss. The shallow and extensive root structure of the cactus lends to prime water absorption, where the cactus becomes more hydrated than its surrounding soil. It’s thick waxy skin keeps water inside from evaporating.

Once absorbed, the cactus acts as a reservoir, where it will expand or contract depending on the amount of water it holds. Water is stored inside the stem, where the spongy mucilage or succulent cells have such a high affinity to water that it can store water exceeding its own weight for a fairly long time, even up to a year.

Through millions of years, cactus have adapted to harsh and desert conditions. With little and unpredictable rainfall, they have found a way to thrive. They are optimally and proficiently self-sufficient and thus packed with nutrients and oils. You could say each cactus is a plant full of goodness.

These same goodies happen to include the same nutrients the human body needs to function, and in optimal conditions, prosper.

To dive a little deeper into all that goodness, let’s look specifically at the prickly pear fruit from the nopal cactus (since this is the fruit juice found in Fat Leaf Water) and the health benefits it provides to the human body.

According to the USDA and American Chemical Society, the prickly pear fruit has a unique composition of nutrients and organic compounds that have a positive impact on health.

Nutrients include Vitamin C, B-family vitamins, magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper and dietary fiber. Organic compounds include flavonoids, polyphenols and betalains.

These particular nutrients and organic compounds are all found at high levels in the prickly pear fruit.

How does this impact human health?

First off, it reduces inflammation. For hundreds of years, a topical solution of prickly pear has been applied to not only reduce but eliminate the swelling of bug bites. Now, the antioxidants and minerals in prickly pear have been shown to reduce inflammation, particularly in conditions like arthritis, gout or muscle strain.

It also protects the skin, lowering the chances of premature aging, improves vision, increases cognitive activity by increasing brain strength and functionality. Tocopherol and beta-carotene antioxidants are beneficial for skin and eye health. The linoleic, linolenic and fatty acids from the seed oil

It fights certain cancers, heart disease and type 2 diabetes with significant levels of particular antioxidants called flavonoids, polyphenols and betalains.

According to the Mayo Clinic, prickly pear is promoted for treating type 2 diabetes by lowering blood sugar levels.

In addition, it protects heart health and helps to prevent heart diseases and stroke. High fiber content helps to lower cholesterol. Potassium helps to lower blood pressure. Betalains help to strengthen the blood vessel walls.

It aids in digestion. Like most fruits, prickly pear has a significant level of dietary fiber, helping to regulate the entire digestive process.

It strengthens bones and teeth.

It boosts immunity.

Research has linked prickly pear consumption to toxin removal and antioxidant activity with its high levels of vitamins C and E. A single serving of prickly pear contains more than 1/3 of your entire daily requirement for Vitamin C. Vitamin C plays a major role in boosting the immune system and plays an important role in enzyme and metabolic processes to include the creation of bone and muscle tissue.

Last but not least, it keeps the body hydrated. The minerals that act as electrolytes to manage the body’s fluid levels help to optimize the metabolic processes and systems in the body and their functionality.

Counter-intuitively, the cactus is the beacon of hydration and the notion of a thriving plant. Then I think of the holistic relationship of nature and nurture, input and output, yins and yangs. The cactus prospers as it does in its elements. In turn it provides nourishment for the human body through its vitality. A real, resilient and romantic story of nature and nurture.

Hydraulic Strategy of Cactus Trichome for Absorption and Storage of Water under Arid Environment. National Center for Biotechnology Information & National Institute of Health

How Cacti Survive: Surprising Strategies Quench Thirst. Live Science

Nutritional Composition of the Prickly Pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) Fruit. Science Direct

An Anti-inflammatory Principle. Science Direct

Supplementation with cactus pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) fruit decreases oxidative stress in healthy humans: a comparative study with vitamin C. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

I’ve seen prickly pear cactus promoted as a superfood. What’s behind the hype? Mayo Clinic

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Ruth is Brand Manager and Partner at Fat Leaf Water, the first cactus-water based hydration sports beverage. She looks forward to connecting the next dots.