Foraging For Prickly Pear Cactus
In Search Of This Common, Tasty Fruit
By Christopher Nyerges, California
Though generally regarded as a desert plant, the prickly pear cactus is actually rather widespread. Perhaps the only area where you won’t find it is in the higher elevations where it could not survive prolonged periods of cold or snow. It can be found on the cliffs overlooking the beaches, in chaparral, in urban backyards, in the interface between urban sprawl and the wilderness. It’s a survivor and you can find it where you least expect it.
The prickly pear cactus is perhaps one of the most widespread of the cacti, and is easy to recognize.
The pads are covered with spines as they mature, and at the base of each spine is a cluster of tiny glochids, which tend to be more miserable than the spines when they get into your mouth and tongue and lips. As you become more familiar with the many Opuntias, you’ll see that some of the pads are less spiny than others, and therefore easier to collect, clean, and work with.
The Opuntias flower in the spring, and then the oval fruits develop. The fruits are first green, and then, depending on the species, the fruits mature green, yellow, orange, red and purple. The peak of fruit ripening is generally September. They each have their own unique flavor and if you are a connoisseur of subtle flavor, you can use these different cactus fruits in different recipes to great advantage.
My preference is the large yellow fruit, and the very tasty orange fruits.
To collect the fruit, I bring sturdy plastic tubs, dishwashing gloves, which extend as close to the elbows as possible, and long metal salad tongs. Sometimes I also carry a long knife.
In some of the thickets where I collect, I have had to make paths into the cactus so I can move and collect without bumping into millions of spines.
When I begin to collect, I put on my gloves and then pick each fruit by grabbing it with the tongs, and then gently twisting it to remove it from the pad. Then I carefully place it into my plastic tub. I do this until I have nearly a full tub. I put the fruits in carefully so they are not all mushed up and impossible to clean when I get home.
At home, I turn each fruit a few times over a flame on the stove and then put them into the sink, where I will rinse each fruit and gently brush with a mushroom brush. Once I am certain they are all cleaned, I cut each fruit in half, and scoop out the inside fruit, which readily separates (in most cases) from the skin. If I am not going to use these right away, I freeze them.
Usually, whether I am going to freeze or use right away, I will put the fruits into a blender and blend it all into a slurry. I pour the slurry through a sieve, which separates out all the seed. I will freeze the slurry in small yogurt containers or even plastic bags. I found that when I used to freeze in bulk in larger containers, I had to thaw out more than I often wanted for one recipe. It’s much easier to freeze in smaller containers. In fact, one small yogurt container of nothing more than frozen cactus slurry makes an excellent snack on a summer afternoon.
The cactus slurry can be mixed 50/50 with water for a delicious drink. You could make jams, jellies, pies and various desert items with the cactus pulp.
My wife Dolores used to make a delicious pie with cactus by mixing the de-seeded fruit with tofu and perhaps some yogurt. This was blended to make a pie filling, which she poured into a whole-wheat pastry shell. These cactus pies were better than anything we ever purchased at a store or restaurant, and were always a hit at our wild food classes. Unfortunately, I have never been able to duplicate her recipe. Some have come close, but there was something she did that made it “just so.” (Unfortunately, Dolores passed away in 2008 and took her secret with her!)
Eating prickly pear has long been regarded as a folk medicine way to deal with diabetes. Now, modern medicine has confirmed that eating the prickly pear cactus pads (or making juice of them) can help those who suffer from diabetes. (For additional scientific data, see Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine by Ran Knishinsky. This book provides the scientific evidence that prickly pear cactus fruits and pads are useful for treating diabetes, cholesterol, and the immune system.)
According to my teacher and mentor, Dr. Leonid Enari, the entire cactus family is a very safe family for consumption. He would quickly add that some are much too woody for food. A very few are extremely bitter—even after boiling—and you’d not even consider using them for food.
If you choose to experiment, just remember that palatability is the key. Don’t eat any that are too woody, and any that are extremely bitter. Any that have a white sap when cut are not cacti, but look-alike members of the Euphorbia group.
Occasionally, people have experienced sickness after eating certain varieties. In some cases, this is due to a negative reaction to the mucilaginous quality. There may be other chemical reasons as well. So despite this being a very commonly used food historically for millennia, we suggest you start with very little and monitor your reactions.
Christopher Nyerges is the author of Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Foraging Edible Wild Plants of North America, How to Survive Anywhere, and other books. He has studied mycology, and led wilderness trips since 1974. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.