Plant 261

Pereskia aculeata Mill. (Cactaceae)

Barbados gooseberry

Pereskia aculeata has many common names in addition to Barbados gooseberry, for example, Spanish gooseberry, lemon vine or, simply, pereskia. Unlike stereotypical cactuses, Pereskia species have large fleshy, green leaves.

Native to tropical South America, Pereskia grows in humid to sub-humid evergreen forests on inselbergs of gneiss, granite or limestone. When young, Pereskia is an erect, woody shrub but, with age, becomes a scrambling vine that sometimes reaches over ten metres in height. Young stems and leaves are semi-succulent with short, hooked spines, at the leaf bases, that aid climbing; older stems are woody with long, hard, straight spines. Flowers are white, cream or yellow with a lemon-scent and the fruit is a yellow, tart berry. Capuchin and brown howler monkeys feed on the fruits, and in some regions of Brazil are its main dispersers.

Grown as an ornamental or for its fruits, Pereskia aculeata is now widely distributed in many tropical and warm temperate countries. In many cases, it has escaped cultivation, becoming naturalised and sometimes outcompeting indigenous plant species. Introduced in South Africa in 1858 as a botanical curiosity, by the 1970s Pereskia aculeata had spread so far, and reached such high densities, that by the end of the decade it was declared an environmentally damaging invasive alien weed.

The ecologically sensitive habitats Pereskia grows in, and its habit of growing through other plants, makes control difficult using herbicides or physical removal. In its native habitat, insects and pathogens feed on it, stunting its growth and reducing its ability to compete with surrounding plants, and therefore preventing it from reaching high densities. One of these insects is the pereskia stem-wilter (Catorhintha schaffneri). This bug. Which feeds exclusively on Pereskia aculeata and dies out if its food source is unavailable, is being used as a biological control in South Africa.

In Brazil, the leaves, stems and fruits are used as food for both humans and livestock; Pereskia leaves are apparently very digestible. The leaves contain high levels of proteins, minerals, dietary fibre, vitamins A and C, and folic acid. Protein and some essential minerals are apparently higher in Pereskia than in cabbage, lettuce or spinach. Young shoots and leaves can be cooked and eaten as greens and the fruits stewed, preserved with sugar or made into preserves. Due to their high mucilaginous content, Pereskia leaves are used as emollients. They are also used to heal wounds and reduce inflammation.

Further reading

Taylor NP et al. 2017. Pereskia aculeata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Morton J 1987. Fruits of warm climates. Julia F Morton.

Souza LF et al. 2016. Pereskia aculeata Muller [sic] (Cactaceae) leaves: chemical composition and biological activities. International Journal of Molecular Sciences 17: 1478.

Louisa Hall