How to eat cactus?

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Guide to eating prickly pears

Right now, every fence along every south Italian road is ripe with spiky cactus fruits. Here’s is my guide to eating prickly pears.
The fichi d’India are everywhere, heavy with fruit in varying colours and degrees of ripeness – and even the supermarket sells prickly pear in an unspiked, ready-to-peel version.

Hairy spikes make eating prickly pears a dubious joy.

Fortunately, hungry neighbours had nicked most of the cactus fruits from my piece of land, and I wish they’d taken them all. That way I wouldn’t have had to fight the almost invisible hairy spikes. It was no problem to get the fruit off the cactus without getting skewered, as long as you used a special fico d’India plucking contraption combined with thick work gloves and buckets of water.

I also manage to peel the prickly pears without mishaps, but the spikes clung to the table, the plates, knife and dishcloth for days and ended up in fingers, when least expected.

Nor was eating the fruit an undivided pleasure. Fichi d’India contain quite a lot of stony seeds and after two fruits you feel as if you could dance a pizzica and beat the rhythm without using a tambourine. Those seeds really make me rattle.

Peeled prickly pears ready to eat. Apart from the highly indigestible pits.

So after an attempt at making prickly pear juice and a successful prickly pear jam, I decided the fruits looked much prettier on the plant than on my table.

How do you like eating prickly pears?

More on eating prickly pears and other home grown produce

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What The Heck Is A Cactus Pear?

One of the many unusual fruit varieties that’s begun popping up in grocery stores around the country in recent years is the cactus pear, also known as the prickly pear, cactus fig, or tuna fruit. These strange-looking fruits are, true to their name, the annual edible growth of the prickly pear cactus, native primarily to the southwestern United States and Mexico.

What Does A Cactus Pear Taste Like?
The flavor of a cactus pear is sweet, but somewhat bland, similar in flavor to a melon. Despite the name, the fruit is not actually a member of the pear family. It was simply named that because the prickly fruit resembles a pear in size and shape. The pads of the prickly pear cactus, called nopales, are also edible, but are not commonly available outside of their native region. Unlike the fruit, nopales are not sweet, but are tart and crisp.

Cactus pears come in a range of colors, from lime green through yellow, orange, and beet red. The colors are a natural variation, and do not indicate maturity. They are covered in rough bumps, called glochids, bearing many tiny, sharp spines.

How To Eat A Cactus Pear
To eat a cactus pear, it is important to first remove the spines. If picking your own, be sure to wear thick gloves when removing the glochids. One traditional method for removing them is to roast them off in an open flame, such as a campfire. You can also use something abrasive to brush them off, or just cut them off with a knife.

If you’re buying a cactus pear from the store, the spines should have already been removed, but you’ll still want to remove the tough outer skin. Using a sharp knife, slice off both ends of the cactus pear and discard them. Next, cut a long vertical slice along the length of the body of the cactus pear. Take hold of a corner of the thick skin and carefully peel it back, away from the flesh of the fruit. If this proves too difficult, simply slip your knife under the skin and cut it away.

The fruit contains many small seeds, which are edible, though many people choose not to eat them. If you don’t mind the seeds, it can be a wonderful treat to just slice into a cactus pear and enjoy it raw. The sweet juice also makes a great addition to beverages, such as lemonade or mojitos, and can be made into jelly, sorbet, or any number of other sweet treats.

Here are some recipes to help you get to know this curious fruit:

Cactus Pear Juice
Ingredients:
Cactus pears (about two for every cup of juice desired)
Lemon or lime juice to taste

Directions:
Carefully peel away the skins and cut the fruit into small cubes. Place it in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Push the blended fruit through a sieve to capture the seeds and any remaining thick pulp. Add lemon or lime juice to taste, or add to lemonade in place of sugar.

Cactus Pear Sorbet
Ingredients:
4 cups cactus pear juice
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons lime juice

Directions:
First, make a simple syrup by combining the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly until the sugar melts. Set it aside to cool. Once the simple syrup has cooled, combine it with the cactus pear juice and lemon juice.

If you have an ice cream maker, spoon the mixture into it and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you do not have an ice cream maker, place the mixture in a tall sealing container and freeze it for about 90 minutes. Remove it and stir the sorbet with a whisk. Return it to the freezer and stir once every hour for about four hours. This will incorporate air into the mixture, making it light and creamy.

Cactus Pear Salad
Ingredients:
1 cactus pear
1 avocado
1 bell pepper
1 tomato
¼ cup olive oil
Juice from half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:
Peel the cactus pear and slice it into quarter inch cubes. Halve the avocado, and remove the pit and peel. Slice both halves into 1/4” cubes. Slice the bell pepper in half and remove the core, stem, and seeds. Slice it into several thin strips, and halve the strips. Toss the pepper strips with the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Add cactus pear and avocado cubes and and toss briefly, until just mixed.

Did you know you’ll need a torch to harvest these fruits in the wild? Take a look:

Edible Cactus: Natural Food

Edible cactus is also known as nopales (no-PAH-les), nopalitos or cactus pads. This vegetable is popular in Mexico and other Central American countries, parts of Europe, the Middle East, India, North Africa and Australia. Its popularity is increasing in the United States where it can be found at Mexican grocery stores, specialty produce markets and farmer’s markets.

Edible cactus is characterized by its fleshy oval leaves (typically called pads or paddles) of the nopal (prickly pear) cactus.

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With a soft but crunchy texture that also becomes a bit sticky (not unlike okra) when cooked, edible cactus tastes similar to a slightly tart green bean, asparagus, or green pepper.

Cactus pads contain beta carotene, iron, some B vitamins, and are good sources of both vitamin C and calcium.

Availability, Selection, and Storage

Edible cactus is available year-round with a peak in the mid-spring and the best season from early spring through late fall. When buying edible cactus, choose small, firm, pale green cacti with no wrinkling. Be sure to pick cacti that are not limp or dry. Very small paddles may require more cleaning because their larger proportion of prickers and eyes.Edible cactus can be refrigerated for more than a week if wrapped tightly in plastic.

Edible cactus is also sold as:

  • Canned — pickled or packed in water
  • Acitrones — candied nopales, packed in sugar syrup and available in cans or jars.

Preparation

The edible cactus you buy should be de-spined though you will need to trim the “eyes” to remove any remaining prickers, and outside edges of the pads with a vegetable peeler. Trim off any dry or fibrous areas and rinse thoroughly to remove any stray prickers and sticky fluid.

Edible cactus can be eaten raw or cooked. To cook, steam over boiling water for just a few minutes (if cooked too long they will lose their crunchy texture). Then slice and eat! Cactus can also be cut and sautèed in butter or oil for a few minutes.

Steamed cactus can be added to scrambled eggs and omelets, or diced fresh and added to tortillas. They can also be substituted for any cooked green in most dishes.

The pads can be served as a side dish or cooled and used in salads. They taste especially good with Mexican recipes that include tomatoes, hot peppers and fresh corn.

What is the difference between cactus leaves (edible cactus or nopales) and the prickly pear?

As part of the cactus plant, the prickly pear is a fruit that is 2 to 4 inches long and shaped like an avocado. Its skin is coarse and thick, not unlike an avocados and it ranges in color from yellow or orange to magenta or red. Tubercles with small prickly spines can be found on the prickly pear’s skin. This fruit’s flesh, which ranges in color also from yellow to dark red, is sweet and juicy with crunchy seeds throughout.

The prickly pear can be diced like pineapple and used as a topping on yogurt or cereal or blended into a smoothie.

Prickly pear cactus has been a staple of the Mexican and Central American diet for thousands of years. In parts of the U.S. it has been gaining popularity as an exotic, gourmet and healthy addition to one’s diet. They grow wild throughout the American southwest, down to South America and up to Canada. The ones you may find at a local store or farmers market will surely originate from a commercial nopal farm.

  • The prickly pear plant has three different edible sections:
    The pad (or Nopal), which can be treated like a vegetable. It has a soft but crunchy texture that also becomes a bit sticky (not unlike okra) when cooked. Edible cactus tastes similar to a slightly tart green bean, asparagus, or green pepper. Cactus pads contain beta carotene, iron, some B vitamins, and are good sources of both vitamin C and calcium.
  • The flower petals, which can be added to salads.
  • The pear (tuna) which is a fruit that is 2 to 4 inches long and shaped like an avocado. Its skin is coarse and thick, not unlike an avocados and it ranges in color from yellow or orange to magenta or red. Tubercles with small prickly spines can be found on the prickly pear’s skin. This fruit’s flesh, which ranges in color also from yellow to dark red, is sweet and juicy with crunchy seeds throughout. The prickly pear can be diced like pineapple and used as a topping on yogurt or cereal or blended into a smoothie.

Availability, Selection, and Storage
Edible cactus is available year-round with a peak in the mid-spring and the best season from early spring through late fall. When buying edible cactus, choose small, firm, pale green cacti with no wrinkling. Be sure to pick cacti that are not limp or dry. Very small paddles may require more cleaning because their larger proportion of prickers and eyes. Edible cactus can be refrigerated for more than a week if wrapped tightly in plastic.

Learn how to grow prickly pear cactus in this article. Growing prickly pear cactus and its care is not difficult if you grow it in right growing conditions.

USDA Zones— 9-11

Difficulty— Easy

Botanical Name— Opuntia ficus-indica

Other Names— Barbary-fig Cactus, Cactus Pear Fruit, Gracemere-Pear, Indian-fig, Indian fig, Nopal Cactus, Oponce, Opuntia, Opuntia cardona, Opuntia ficus, Opuntia ficus-indica, Opuntia fuliginosa, Opuntia hyptiacantha, Opuntia lasciacantha, Opuntia macrocentra, Opuntia megacantha, Opuntia puberula, Opuntia streptacantha, Opuntia velutina, Opuntia violacea, Tuna Cardona, Westwood-Pear

Prickly pear is a common succulent plant in Mediterranean and subtropical regions. It is grown as an ornamental plant and for its juicy fruits. Prickly pear cactus is undemanding and easy to grow. It grows about 1-2.5 m high. The flowers are very showy, colors ranging from white, yellow, to orange, depending more on the variety.

How to Grow Prickly Pear Cactus

Propagation

Prickly pear cactus can be propagated from seeds or pads. Growing prickly pear from the pad is comparatively easy than seeds. To facilitate the rooting, it is preferable to wait until the cuts are perfectly healed (about 1-2 week) before planting. If you live in an arid climate, you can skip this step.

Tuck them an inch deep on the ground or in containers. The rooting takes place in a short time, usually in a month. Save the rooting pad from the afternoon sun and water it when the top one inch of soil seems dry.

Location

Growing prickly pear cactus in a sunny location allows the plant to thrive and fruit. Prickly pear cactus is a tropical or subtropical plant, so it loves the warm exposure. However, it can withstand temperatures down to 14 F (-10 C), but in areas, with harsh winters it is best to plant it in a sheltered spot, near a wall or tall tree to protect it from cold drafts and fluctuation in temperature. If you’re living in a cooler climate, growing prickly pear cactus in a container is the better option for you as it can only be grown on the ground where winter temperature remains above 14 F (- 10 C).

How To Grow Prickly Pears In Containers

Being a cactus, it won’t tolerate heavy and constant moisture rain, so it is advisable to plant it in containers for such climatic conditions. When planting in a pot make sure to fulfill all its drainage needs:

  • Provide sufficient drainage holes at the bottom.
  • Fill up the pot with a well-draining potting medium.
  • Place the pot at a warm location.
  • In a cool climate, wait for the late springs when all the dangers of frost and rain have passed to transplant the cactus.

Requirements for Growing Prickly Pear Cactus

Soil

Prickly pear cactus can tolerate poor soil conditions. If growing on the ground, it even tolerates heavy soil to some extent if it doesn’t remain wet. However, it’s best to grow it in well-drained, light, sandy and loamy soil.

Avoid clay-rich soil that is not well draining and promotes water-stagnation. For growing prickly pear cactus in a container, use succulent potting mix or any regular potting mix that doesn’t retain moisture. Make your potting mix for prickly pear by mixing 1/3 part each of compost, soil, and coarse sand or perlite.

Watering

Watering should be done only when the surface looks dry. On average, during the spring and summer, water it once or twice a week and during the fall and winter once or twice a month. If you’re living in tropics more frequent watering will be required.

Repotting

If growing in a pot, the plant must be repotted once it is root bound. Whenever you identify that the plant is growing slowly, repot it. The best repotting time is spring.

Prickly Pear Cactus Care

Prickly pear cactus care involves several steps that are given below.

Fertilizer

Fertilize every month with a liquid 5-10-10 fertilizer to promote flowering and fruiting. For the young plant, fertilize with 10-10-10 fertilizer.

Instead of liquid feeding, you can also opt for granular fertilizer. Schedule it according to the product’s instructions. *Do not feed in winter in cooler zones when the plant stops to grow.

Pruning

Pruning prickly pears is not required. It is done in spring or late summer by removing the pads that come into contact with each other or those that are damaged or poorly formed.

Overwintering

Prickly pear cactus care in winter is essential. If you’re growing prickly pear cactus in a pot, protect it in winter by keeping it indoors. If growing outside, do mulching to insulate the plant from the temperature drop.

Fruit Thinning

Fruit thinning is done to get a better harvest. It is necessary to remove extra fruits and flowers to get lower production but of improved quality. It is recommended that thinning must be done two weeks before the formation of the fruits, leaving approximately up to 10 fruits per stalk.

Pests and Diseases

Mealybugs, spider mites, and cochineal might attack it. Keep an eye on fruit flies and moths as well.

In diseases, worry about root rot and stem rot — too much water or cold causes rotting. Prickly pear cactus is a succulent, so water it moderately. As soon as you detect the softening of tissues, remove the rotten part and treat the infected part with fungicide.

Harvesting

You’ll know that the prickly pear is ready for harvest when the fruit loses all its prickly spikes. Great news as it’ll be easier to harvest it! Another indication of ripened fruit is the color changing from green to yellow or solid red. Also, the ripe fruits feel firm when pressed. Just don’t apply too much pressure and wear protective gloves.

Also Read: Heat Tolerant Fruit Trees

How to Plant and Grow Prickly Pear Cactus

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The opuntia genus of the cactus family, more commonly known as prickly pear cacti, are native to the Americas and are found in the largest populations in Mexico and dry, arid regions of the western and southern United States. The pads (also known as paddles or leaves) and the fruits of these cacti are culinary staples for communities indigenous to these areas and are used in traditional medicine as a natural remedy for a variety of ailments.

While you can forage for the fruits and pads or purchase them at grocery stores, you may be interested in growing your own opuntia cactus to harvest the fruits or leaves to eat at home or share with friends.

Prickly pears are easy to grow and will grow well in most areas of Southern California. They require little water, are drought tolerant and are an attractive addition to low-water, low-maintenance landscaping.

One important note before we talk about how to grow prickly pear cactus: Because they have harmful spines and glochids, prickly pear cactus should not be grown in areas where children or animals spend time.

The first step in how to grow prickly pear cactus is to determine where you want to grow your cactus. Prickly pears can be grown in containers or in the ground. If you are growing in a container, choose a succulent and cactus mix for your soil and make sure the container has drainage holes. For better drainage, you can start with a layer of gravel at the bottom of the container. When growing prickly pears in containers, you will need to transplant them into larger pots whenever the cactus gets rootbound.

Opuntia cactus will tolerate less-than-ideal soil, but they do prefer well-draining, sandy or loamy soils and may not do as well in some areas of coastal Southern California where there is heavy, clay soil unless you amend it to improve drainage. If you are working with heavy, clay soil that is slow draining and retains moisture, consider mixing in some peat moss or sand to improve soil structure.

Once you have decided whether you are growing your cactus in the ground or in a container, you will need to decide how you want to start your cactus. You have three options for this: starting from seed, propagating from a cutting, or purchasing a young plant at your local nursery.

Purchasing a young plant at a nursery is, of course, the easiest way to get started and simply requires transplanting your cactus to a sunny spot with well-draining soil. Established plants can handle full sun all day and require minimal water. It is best to transplant prickly pears in spring, but if you are in a dry, arid area of Southern California, you really should be fine to transplant your cactus any time of the year.

Growing Prickly Pear Cactus for Cuttings

If you want to start your own cactus, the easiest way to do this is through propagation using a cutting. You will first need to acquire your cutting, which you can do through foraging or asking someone who has an established plant. Choose a healthy pad and use gloves and a sharp knife to hold the pad and remove it from the plant by cutting above where it attaches to the plant. Be careful not to cut into the plant below where the pad is attached, since this can damage the plant.

Once you have cut the number of pads you wish to propagate, lay them out in a dry, shady area away from children and pets. Leave them out for about a week to allow the cut to dry and form a callus. Then place the callused end of the pad one to two inches deep in a container and tamp the soil to help the pad stand upright. If you are having issues with it leaning or falling over, you can use small rocks to help support it.

It is best to allow your cactus to grow in the container for about a year before transplanting it into your garden. This will allow you to better control the growing conditions and allow the plant to take root and start producing new growth. You may want to keep the planted pad out of mid-afternoon sun until it begins to establish, but you can move it outside as soon as it is planted most times of the year. If you live in an area with particularly cold winters, you may want to keep your opuntia indoors until spring.

Your cactus will require a bit more water early on, so watch for the soil drying out, and then give it about an inch of water. You may need to do this once or twice per week at first. You will know your cactus is established once you start to see new growth. At this time, you can reduce irrigation to about one-quarter inch of water per week during hotter months and one-quarter inch of water every other week in colder months.

Once your plant is established, it will be able to handle full sun all day, so you can move it to its permanent location.

Growing Prickly Pear Cactus from Seeds

Growing prickly pear cactus from seeds is possible, but it takes longer and requires a bit more work. It is much easier and more convenient to grow your cactus from a cutting, but if cuttings are not available or you prefer to grow from seeds, here are some tips to get you started.

First, you will need to acquire prickly pear cactus seeds. You can purchase seeds online or at some nurseries, or you can harvest them from a prickly pear fruit. If you harvest them from fruit, you will need to completely clean off any pieces of the fruit and allow them to dry before planting them.

Fill small pots or a seed tray with succulent and cactus mix, place one seed in each pot or each section of the seed tray, and push them just slightly into the soil. Since opuntia seeds require light to germinate, you do not want to push them too far into the soil. Place your pots under grow lights or on a sunny windowsill to allow for germination.

Keep the soil moist but not wet as you wait for them to germinate. Once you have seedlings, watch the color to see if they need more or less light. If they look yellowish, move them to a sunnier spot. If they look red or brown, they need a spot with less light. If they are green, then they are happy where they are.

If you start your seeds in pots, you can allow them to grow in that pot until they outgrow it. If you start them in seed trays, make sure they are developed and healthy before transplanting them to pots to continue growing.

General Tips for Growing Opuntia Cactus

Your prickly pear cactus will not need pruning except to remove damaged pads. These cacti also do not require fertilizer, but you can encourage health and growth of young plants with a 10-10-10 liquid fertilizer applied monthly. If you want to encourage the production of more flowers and fruits, use a 5-10-10 or a 0-10-10 fertilizer.

How to Harvest and Eat Prickly Pear Cactus

The pads, flowers, fruit and stems of the prickly pear cactus are edible. The sweet fruits, which are generally called prickly pears or tunas, are eaten raw or used in making candies, jellies and jams. You can also make or buy prickly pear juice that can be enjoyed alone or used as a mixer for cocktails or mocktails. The pads (aka leaves) are eaten raw or cooked in a variety of dishes, including salads, soups, tacos, jams, or egg dishes.

Both the pads and fruits are used in traditional medicine to treat an array of illnesses, including diabetes and high cholesterol. You will most often see it called nopal or nopales when purchasing powders, teas or other natural remedies made from the opuntia cactus for these purposes.

According to the Mayo Clinic, prickly pear cactus is high in fiber, carotenoids and antioxidants, and “Some preliminary evidence shows that prickly pear cactus can decrease blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Some research also suggests that prickly pear cactus extract may lessen the unpleasant effects of a hangover, possibly due to its anti-inflammatory effects.” (MayoClinic.org)

Harvesting prickly pear pads and fruits can be dangerous, so it is imperative that you take appropriate precautions to protect yourself during this task.

Before you can use the fruits or pads, you must first remove them from the plant. The mature pads will have sharp spines and a more fibrous texture, so it is best to choose young pads that are bright green and about the size of your hand. Wear thick gloves to protect your hands and arms from the spines while you hold the pad with one hand or sturdy tongs. Use your other hand to cut the pad, or nopal, from the plant.

Once you have harvested the pads, use a vegetable peeler to carefully remove the spines and the outer edge of the pads. Wash the pads, and then store them in the refrigerator to use within a few days, or use them immediately raw or cooked. The easiest ways to cook with nopales are to either grill the pad whole, and then cut it into strips to serve as a side dish, or to chop the nopales into strips or cubes and sauté them to add to egg dishes, side dishes or salsa.

To harvest prickly pear fruits, also known as tunas, you will need thick gloves or tongs to remove them from the cactus. While the fruits do not have spines, they do have glochids, which are nearly invisible, hair-thin splinters that are easy to get in your skin and difficult to get out. Therefore, while wearing your thick gloves for protection, twist each tuna off of the cactus to harvest them. Greener fruits are younger and will not be as sweet as riper fruits, which will be shades of oranges, red or purple.

Once you have gathered your opuntia fruits, you will need to remove the glochids before you can consume the fruits. You can achieve this by burning them off or peeling them off. To burn them off, stick a fork in the end of the fruit to provide a handle for holding it over an open flame. Use the flame from your stove, barbecue grill or a culinary torch to burn off the glochids.

Alternatively, you can peel the skin off by using two forks to avoid touching the fruit with your hands. To begin, stick the fruit with one of the forks. Cut off both ends of the fruit, and then slice the skin lengthwise from end to end. Hold the fruit with one fork while using a second fork to peel the skin off of the fruit. If you do not burn off the glochids before peeling the fruit, remember that these can easily fall off onto your cutting board or counter top, so be sure to properly clean all surfaces and tools.

Once you have peeled the fruit, you can eat it as is or use the fruit in jelly, candy or juicing recipes. While it is okay to swallow some seeds, they are too hard to chew, and you do not want to consume them in large amounts.

Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia)

Prickly pears and other Opuntia species are very popular desert cacti grown as houseplants. They are highly ornamental, made up of segmented stems of wide, flat, thick pads that are covered in spines.

Some have large, rounded spines while others have tiny, hair-like barbs that detach on contact with the plant, stick in the skin and can be difficult to remove – so handle with care.

The edible, lemon-shaped or plum-shaped prickly pear fruit, sometimes called ‘Indian figs’, of some species of Opuntia is becoming something of a delicacy in the UK. They are also very colourful and ornamental. When mature, their outsides become bright red and the inside flesh turns orange. Some varieties are yellow on the outside when ripe and green inside. These are not quite as sweet, and are used in syrups, preserves and jellies. However, you need perfect conditions for plants to produce good-sized fruit in the UK.

How to grow prickly pear cacti

Cultivation

Indoors prickly pears need a brightly lit position, preferably a south-facing or west-facing aspect or grown in a conservatory or heated greenhouse with good, all-round light. They need 4-6 hours of direct sunshine in summer.

They are not cold or frost hardy, but can be moved outside to a warm, sunny patio in summer. Make sure you bring them back indoors before the weather turns cold in early autumn.

They need a minimum spring and summer temperatures of 18°C (65°F), but prefer cooler temperatures in autumn and winter of 7-13°C (45-55°F) while they’re dormant. Keep them away from direct heat and radiators as well as draughts and fans that cause fluctuating temperatures.

Prickly pear cactus varieties

There are more than 200 species of Opuntia. They range in height from low-growing plants, reaching 30cm (1ft) high to those than can easily reach 5.4m (18ft).

Probably the best one to grow at home is Opuntia microdasys, which has the common name of bunny ears. This only grows to 30-45cm (12-18in), has oval pads with tufts of small, golden spines. But don’t be fooled by their size, these tiny barbs can be as uncomfortable as much larger spines if you get them in your fingers.

Planting prickly pear cacti

Like all other desert cacti, they need a very well-drained compost, so either add extra grit to a John Innes Compost or, better still, use a compost specifically recommended for cacti and succulents.

Add a topdressing of gravel, pebbles or sharp sand on top of the compost to produce a natural, finished look and to help prevent the base of the plant sitting in wet compost.

Be careful of the spines when handling the plants. When potting up or otherwise moving the plants, it pays to wear gloves and to use a collar made from a rolled up newspaper around the stem.

Suggested planting locations and garden types

Houseplant, indoor plant, summer patio plant.

How to care for prickly pear cacti

Being desert cacti, many people think you don’t have to water them. While they can survive long periods of drought by storing water in their stems, they grow – and flower – much better if given adequate supplies of water. Water moderately when plants are in growth (from March/April to September), but more sparingly when dormant – once or twice a month may be sufficient in autumn and winter. Allow the compost to dry out slightly before watering again and always allow the compost to drain, never allowing the pot to sit in water.

Feed with a balanced liquid feed once a month during the growing season from late spring to late summer, but don’t feed in autumn and winter.

Prickly pears should only be repotted when absolutely necessary – only when they become extremely potbound or have outgrown their current container. Only repot into the next size pot in late spring or early summer.

Flowering season(s)

Summer

Foliage season(s)

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter

Sunlight

Full sun

Soil type

Loamy

Soil pH

Neutral

Soil moisture

Well-drained

Ultimate height

Up to 5.4m (18ft) depending on species

Ultimate spread

Up to 3m (10ft) depending on species

Time to ultimate height

10-20 years

If your climate is right, edible cacti and succulents are extremely low-maintenance plants and delicious, too!

Some people ask what the difference is between cacti and succulents. The definition of a succulent plant is one that has “thick, fleshy, water-storing leaves or stems”, so technically a cactus is a succulent. But most people use the term cacti to mean succulents with spines on them, and all true cacti belong to the plant family Cactaceae.

Let’s talk about the wide variety of edible cacti and other succulent plants available to you for edible landscaping:

Edible Cacti

All true cactus fruit is safe to eat, but some taste better than others. Some taste best cooked, and most have to be peeled or otherwise have their spines removed before you put one in your mouth! And, of course, everyone likes different things. So it’s advisable to try some of the cactus you’re considering before buying, to make sure you like it and aren’t allergic.

Which edible cactus you choose depends on what you want to use it for and what look you want in your edible landscaping. Many edible cacti belong to one of the 200+ Opuntia species, also known as the Nopales, Nopalitos, the Cactus Pear, or the Paddle Cactus.

The leaves and egg-shaped fruit (or “tunas”) of all Opuntia are edible. You can identify Opuntia species by their oval, flat leaves or “paddles”, covered with small spines.

The Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) is the most famous and well-loved of the edible cacti. Also called the Indian Fig, their leaves and fruit are very flavorful and are a staple of many dishes in Central America and the southwestern US. This cactus has been introduced into places as varied as Australia, northern Africa, and the Galapagos islands.

Opuntia are quite cold-tolerant (growing as far north as British Columbia) and in some places have become invasive, but they have a lot of uses in edible landscaping (they make excellent barrier hedges), and can make a stunning centerpiece in rock gardens or other drought tolerant landscapes.

Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), the elegant symbol of the southwestern US desert, has edible fruit when it’s fully mature (which can take decades). However, the Saguaro plant itself is difficult to obtain, and is illegal to move without a permit in many areas.

If you have one growing on your property, congratulations!

The Organ Pipe Cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) resembles a Saguaro but is smaller with “arms” that usually grow at the base of the plant, rather than farther up the main trunk. It has lavender flowers and red fruit known as Pitahaya Dulce, about the size of a golf ball.

The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona (US) is full of these, and a visit is a wonderful way to see these lovely cacti in their native environment.

The Barrel Cactus fruit can be picked and eaten raw, and has no spines, making it the easiest to handle. The flowers and buds are also edible. One of the legends of the American Wild West was that Barrel Cacti could be cut open and the pulp squeezed for water that would keep you alive in the deep desert. I’ve heard that Barrel Cactus juice doesn’t taste very good but is better than dying of thirst!

The vine-like Night-Blooming Cereus (Hylocereus undatus), otherwise known as the “Dragon Fruit” or Pitaya (and also called Pitahaya Dulce in some areas), is a cactus with long fleshy leaves and bright red or yellow fruit with a white or red center and black, crunchy seeds with high nutritional value. The plant has large, fragrant white flowers that only bloom at night.

Several species are also called “Night-Bloming Cereus”, such as Peniocereus greggii.

There are other cactus fruits called Pitaya such as from the Peruvian Apple Cactus (Cereus repandus), which looks very different from Hylocereus, but also has sweet, brightly colored edible fruit.

Another group of edible cacti are the Epiphyllum species or Orchid Cactus, which look and act much like the Hylocereus species, but their fruit isn’t as large. These all have stunning flowers!

Edible Succulent Plants

A couple of the succulent Caralluma species, Caralluma fimbriata (Caralluma adscendens) and Caralluma edulis, are eaten as vegetables in India and northern Africa.

Several species of the Agave succulents can be made edible, the most notable being Agave tequilana which is used in the production of tequila!

All of the Sedum species (also called “Stonecrops”) are edible. They are used in salads and are said to have a sour or peppery taste. Eat these sparingly; some can cause indigestion if eaten in large amounts.

Purslane is my favorite of the edible succulents, being useful as ground cover in moist areas, easy to grow, and quite pretty — not to mention extremely tasty when cooked.

In the US, Purslane is considered a weed, but it is excellent in stews and soups, as well as tasty fried and reasonably good in salads.

Source: edible-landscape-design.com

Links

  • Succulentopedia: Browse succulents by Scientific Name, Common Name, Genus, Family, USDA Hardiness Zone, Origin, or cacti by Genus

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How to Survive: Finding Water in the Desert

There are at least two places you don’t want to be caught without water—a water balloon fight and, of course, in the desert. But sometimes things don’t go as planned. Maybe you got lost in Zion’s backcountry, or you underestimated how far you’d be hiking or, worse, your water bottle spilled. Now you’re out in one of the country’s hottest, driest, most forbidding environments with nary a drop to drink. We asked Tony Nester, survivalist and owner of Flagstaff, Arizona-based Ancient Pathways outdoor survival school, for tips on how to find water in the desert.

Don’t leave home without it.
Like a good teacher, he took the opportunity to wag a (friendly) finger in our faces, and remind us that the best plan is to be prepared, and bring enough water in the first place. “The most important thing to remember is that the most reliable water source is your tap in your home or in your hotel room before you head out, because there’s just not a lot of water out here.”

Look inside north-facing canyons.
“If you have a topo map, or you can just be up on a ridgeline and eyeball this off the land, try finding north-facing canyons. When they fill up with snowmelt or rainfall, because they don’t have southern exposure and they’re protected much of the day from sunlight, they tend to retain water in large quantities, sometimes for months at a time. We’ve found north-facing pour-offs in canyons where there’s literally more than a Jacuzzi-sized amount of water in them. Sure, the water is stagnant and murky and probably has pollywogs and all that, but it’s better than the alternative.”

Look for water-loving, broad-leafed trees.
“Look for the bright green foliage of cottonwoods, willows, aspens and, if you’re in the Mojave Desert or Africa or the Middle East, palm trees. It’s the broad-leafed, bright green foliage that you’re looking for; much different from evergreens. Whenever I’m out on a trip with students, if we see a cottonwood or sycamore or willow from a distance—and it stands out as a green assault upon your eyes, because it’s the only thing out there for miles around that isn’t sand- or rock-colored—we’ll often stake some time on walking to those. They will either have water on the surface in the form of a spring, there will be a water hole nearby or, at the very least, you can dig a hole down to the roots underneath, and it will fill up with water.”

Look for birds and insects.
“Look for birds and insects. We’ve had a lot of luck over the years in Grand Canyon or the Sonoran Desert, where we’ll be hiking five or six miles through a really remote, desolate region when suddenly we come around a bend and see a hummingbird and then a wasp and, soon after, maybe a butterfly. After you’ve seen nothing for a couple of hours, suddenly there’s life, and it’s important to take note of that. We’ve located water holes that way. Those critters are in that area for a reason, so situational awareness will help you notice that sort of thing.”

Get to higher ground.
“The last thing that can really help is if you can get to a vantage point. It doesn’t mean climbing up a ridgeline or anything, but if you can get up a little bit on the trail and look around, you can sometimes see reflections, you can sometimes see those cottonwoods and willow trees. I always carry a little pair of binoculars with me—just some 8x24s—it’s an essential part of my desert gear, because that can save me sweat and calories by homing in on a water source that is reliable, instead of wondering about something I see off in the distance and burning up a bunch of energy in trying to get there.”

Don’t drink from a cactus.
“Solar stills don’t work. Getting water out of cactus doesn’t work. Those are the two myths that show up again and again in the TV shows and literature. You don’t get ‘water’ from cactus; you get a stomachache and vomiting. In movies, you see a cowboy lop off the top of a barrel cactus—a big, beach ball-shaped cactus—dip his ladle in and get a drink of water. That’s not water, though. It’s a noxious fluid that’s very high in alkalis. That’s a problem, because when you’re heat-stressed, when you have heat exhaustion and you add some of that stuff to your body, you’re going to further tax your kidneys and plunge yourself deeper into trouble, possibly even into heat stroke. Basically, you’re ingesting a substance that your body has to process, which is not recommended. You can drink from a barrel cactus, but only one of five varieties—the fishhook barrel—isn’t toxic.”

Eat cactus fruit, but don’t count on it.
“There are plenty of edible cactus fruits out there—prickly pear, for example. We’ll harvest those in quantity on our courses in summer, and you roast them up for 30 seconds in the coals (to burn off the little hairs and spines) and then you can eat them. But it’s not going to replace the copious amounts of fluid, the 2 or 3 gallons of water you’re going to need in the heat.”

Throw this advice away.
“The bottom line is that research from the Grand Canyon and search-and-rescue operations out here shows that a person who is lost and runs out of water—we’re talking in the summertime, with triple-digit heat—can live up to 48 hours if they’re smart with their own sweat. So think like a cowboy: hole up in the shade, keep covered, get out of the wind and wait for searchers. But if you don’t do that; if you try to push on in search of water in the heat of the day, you could possibly drop dead from heat stroke within three hours, just from taxing your ‘engine’ too much. So if you’ve let somebody know your hiking plans, sit tight and wait for help.”

Tony Nester has taught outdoor survival courses across the desert southwest and Rocky Mountains for 20-plus years through his Ancient Pathways school.

What does a cactus eat?

Plants – cactus are one kind of plant – don’t eat anything. Eating is an activity of animals.

Most plants make their own food in a process called photosynthesis, in which the energy from the sun is used to power the breakdown and reconfiguration of the molecules of air and water into forms of sugar, which the plant then uses to power its life processes. Most photosynthesis takes place in the green parts of the plant, the leaves or – in the case of cactus – the stems.

A number of minerals, such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, plus several others, are absorbed in very tiny to microscopic amounts by the roots, from the soil that surrounds them. The roots also act as pumps to move the absorbed minerals and water through the stems and leaves of the plant.

Within the plant there are certain kinds of cells that take the minerals, and combine them with the sugars to build everything the plant needs – more leaves and stems, storage facilities for water and unused sugar, chlorophyll, enzymes, hormones, vitamins, and all the materials needed by the plant to live.

There aren’t really any processes in the plant that are analogous to “eating.” However, it could be said that the soil is analogous to the animal digestive system, and the roots, or more accurately the xylem and phloem vessels within the roots, are analogous to the circulatory system of animals.

Clark Moorten

Photo by Alex Lau

With the recent vogue for succulents and the turn toward drought-tolerant crops, we’re not the first to wonder whether the edible cactus might be the new unicorn food.

Sure, we know nopales, the de-spined pads of the prickly pear cactus. But almost all cacti also have edible fruit, which are both easier and—let’s be honest—less slimy to eat. If you stumble across one, just pluck and pop it in your mouth: They’re the Southwest’s version of the Northwest’s bumper summer blackberry crops.

Perhaps no one knows more about edible cacti than Clark Moorten, a second-generation cactus cultivator: “I always said I was born with stickers in my butt,” he says when we talk on the phone recently. He has the slight accent of old school movie stars, the words clipped but his delivery laconic, and his voice conjures the toughness and romance of a sepia-toned past. Clark’s been running his family’s Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium in downtown Palm Springs for 36 of his 74 years.

Inside the Cactarium

Photo by Alex Lau

Part of the Garden’s charm is that, like Clark, it has an authentically vintage Palm Springs feel; it’s Instagrammable despite having been built in the 1950s. The Cactarium’s collection includes more than 3,000 species of desert plants: everything from the exotic—a two-stories-tall pachypodium succulent—to the familiar, like Saguaros, those three-pronged icons of Mexico and the American southwest. Most of the cacti in Moorten’s collection produce edible fruit, Moorten says, including prickly pear and dragon fruit (though he doesn’t eat out of the garden much; he’s more of a meat-and-potatoes man).

“There’s a little Mertillo that’ll get thousands of little fruits on it,” he says. “They look almost like a blueberry.”

But if you’re not close to a Cactarium and you want to taste a cactus, where should you start? Whether or not you remember, you’ve probably already had the agave azul cactus: Its leaves are one of the ingredients in tequila. Mezcal, tequila’s trending cousin, is made from various other agave plants. Here are a few others you might see in supermarkets, restaurants, or your next desert stroll.

Prickly Pear

Fruit: Tuna
What it tastes like: Super sweet, like bubblegum and watermelon.
How it’s eaten: Peel off the skin to make sure you don’t get any stray thorns or seeds. Then you can cut it up to eat raw, or juice it to add to cocktails, or lend all-natural color to frosting.

Barrel Cactus

Fruit: Barrel cactus fruit
What it tastes like: Crisp and a little sweet, like a cross between jicama and an apple.
How it’s eaten: Flower buds can be pickled or brined; seeds can be toasted and added to granola. The fruit tends to be a little tougher but tastes great stewed.

Dragon Fruit Cactus

Fruit: Pitahaya dulce
What it tastes like: Sweet, with some tropical and melon-y notes.
How it’s eaten: Peel and enjoy!

Cereus Peruvianus

Fruit: Peruvian apple
What it tastes like: Sweet and subtle, with a tiny hint of tartness. At first, it’s crunchy like an apple, then it melts in your mouth.
How it’s eaten: Peel and enjoy!

Image: AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas

“Green gold.” “Future plant.” “World vegetable dromedary.” These are just a few of the terms used for the prickly pear cactus, a humble plant that, according to a new book co-published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, can serve as a lifesaving crop for many countries, especially those struggling to adapt to climate change.

“It’s actually a fairly amazing crop that can grow in most dry areas of the world,” Makiko Taguchi, a cactus expert at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, told Earther. “And the dry areas of the world are expanding in some places.”

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The prickly pear is, as Taguchi says, “amazing” for a few key reasons. First, it’s extremely easy to grow: the flat, spiney cladodes, or pads, of the cactus will grow roots wherever they touch soil, so generating a new crop of cacti is as easy as spreading rows of pads on the ground. It’s also extremely hardy: prickly pears can grow in harsh, arid lands where other plants refuse to grow (as long as temperatures don’t dip below freezing, that is).

Second, it barely needs irrigation—and in regions that get at least a little periodic rain, it doesn’t need it at all. Like other cacti, it stores water in its pads, which can be up to 95 percent liquid. It also uses a form of photosynthesis—crassulacean acid metabolism, or CAM—that allows it to shut down during the day, when it’s hottest and the rate of water loss would be highest, and collect carbon dioxide during the night. Because of its low water needs, it’s a plant that can thrive even in drought conditions, when other crops wither and die. That’s good news for regions experiencing more frequent and more intense droughts, because the last amazing thing about the prickly pear is that both the cactus’ pads and its fruits are edible, and make nutritious and water-rich foods for humans and their livestock.

“In countries like Ethiopia and Madagascar, where they’re experiencing extreme drought, a lot of the people there are actually surviving on cactus,” Taguchi said. “When they can’t grow anything else, cactus is there to feed the people as well as their animals.”

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A few years ago, for instance, Madagascar was in the midst of a multi-year drought. Crops failed, and many were forced to sell their livestock. But the country narrowly avoided a famine in part because it was able to survive on prickly pear.

A Palestinian farmer picks prickly pear fruit in a field in the northern West Bank village of Faqqouah. Image: AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas Advertisement

It’s these life-saving qualities that prompted the UN FAO to spread the word about the prickly pear with the new book, Crop Ecology, Cultivation and Uses of Cactus Pear, co-published by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which delves into the spiny plant’s history, ecology, and uses around the world. The FAO hopes the book, which also contains tips for growing cacti crops, will help alert arid regions to the cactus’ potential.

The book’s release comes as higher temperatures due to climate change are increasing the risk of severe drought around the world. Years that are hot and dry are more likely to result in extreme droughts than years that are cool and dry, and in some places—like California—climate change is making the hot and dry years more frequent. Luckily, the prickly pear thrives in hot, dry weather, and the cactus can even help facilitate the growth of other plants when it’s planted in regions with dry, degraded soil.

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The prickly pear is native to Mexico, a country where it’s steeped in culture: The plant is featured on the Mexican flag, and Mexico is one of the few places that regularly eats prickly pear pads—or nopales—as well as the plant’s fruit. The pads are grilled and served in salads, tacos, stir fries and other dishes, while the fruit is typically eaten raw or made into jams, juices, or even gelato. The fruits are water-dense and have a refreshing taste similar to watermelon, Taguchi says, while the pads are slightly bitter with a taste typically compared to green beans. The fruits, according to Taguchi, have more antioxidants than apples and tomatoes, and are rich in flavonoids and vitamin C.

Uncooked nopales for sale at a Mexican market. Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/katiebordner/5973819985 Advertisement

Apart from Mexico, prickly pears are grown in 26 countries, with countries like Morocco and Algeria beginning to grow the plant for its seed extract, which can have cosmetic and medicinal uses. Cacti were spread from Mexico to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, who—like the cacti-obsessed of today—valued the plant for its decorative purposes. The plant’s popularity is spreading around the world, Taguchi says, and the UN hopes the book will continue to boost prickly pear’s popularity.

“We have been receiving a number of requests from countries in Africa mainly and some South Asian countries for technical support,” she said. “Some countries are realizing that are growing in the wild, but they’re not being used.”

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The prickly pear’s resilience is a rare piece of climate-related good news when it comes to crops. The unpredictable rainfall and temperatures that come with climate change have the potential to disrupt the production of cocoa, coffee, and even corn and wheat. But prickly pear, as well as standing firm in the face of climate change, may even have the potential to help fight it: researchers in Mexico have been looking into ways to turn the cactus’ tough, spiny skin into renewable biogas.

Prickly pear, of course, isn’t a miracle crop for everyone: in parts of the world that are getting wetter, for instance, the cactus won’t thrive. And even where it does, other sources of protein and carbohydrates will be necessary for a complete diet. Taguchi says the FAO is looking into a variety of crops, including perennial rices and wheats which could be resilient to different forms of future climate scenarios. Crops that are indigenous to certain regions are also high on their list of priorities, because these crops can tend to be more resilient to climatic changes than introduced crops. But for those regions where hot and dry is becoming more and more the norm, the FAO is going to continue to press for more prickly pear cultivation.

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Katie Valentine is a freelance writer focusing on the environment. You can follow her @katiervalentine

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