How to pick prickly pears

The prickly pear is a cactus fruit that is actually a berry. The pulp of the prickly pear is sweet and moist with an aroma and flavor similar to a combination of the tastiest tropical and subtropical fruits, strawberry, watermelon, honeydew melon, fig, and banana.

The salmon or pink to magenta colored flesh of the prickly pear can be sliced or cubed and eaten raw once the fruit’s hard black seeds are removed. The flesh can be puréed and added to yogurts, sorbets, or ice cream or used as a flavoring for drinks. In Mexico, the prickly pear is known a “cactus candy.”

The prickly pear fruit is usually 2 to 4 inches long and egg or barrel shaped, about the size of a kiwi fruit or small guava. The skin is thick and coarse and can vary in color from green to yellow to orange or pink or red, or a bit of all these. The color of the fruit and flesh is preceded by blossoms of the same color.

The prickly pear’s skin is essentially the fruit’s rind and is covered with stiff spines that must be carefully removed. Nopales are the leaves of the cactus pear which also can be eaten. They too are covered with prickly spines or hairs.

Season. The peak season for prickly pears is late summer through early winter, September to December in the northern hemisphere.

Select. Choose small, smooth, unblemished, deep-colored prickly pears that are firm but not hard. The fruit will yield to gentle pressure when ripe. The skin should be shiny. Avoid fruit that is moldy or broken. Prickly pears are ripe for about a week.

Store. Prickly pears can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for 2 to 3 days. Firm prickly pears will ripen and soften at room temperature in a few days.

Prepare. Use care in preparing the prickly pear for cooking, a pair thick leather gloves is recommended. Remove the sharp spines with pliers, cut off ends of the pear, make a shallow slit in the skin down the length of the fruit and peel back both the inner and outer layers skin back from top to bottom with a sharp knife. The prickly pear can have small stinging nearly invisible hairs. You can remove these hairs by passing the fruit through an open flame. To remove the seeds, press the fruit through a sieve or food mill. Be sure to remove the seeds before cooking, otherwise they will harden during cooking.

Cook. Simmer prickly pear slices with water and sugar for 15 minutes or until tender, blend, strain, and chill. You can combine this purée with white wine vinegar or cider vinegar to make a salad dressing.

Serve. Serve prickly pear whole, cubed, or thin sliced in fruit cups or salads or sprinkled with lemon or lime juice. The sieved flesh can be served in punches and cocktails or as a flavoring for sorbets and yogurts. Prickly pear purée can be used as a filling for tarts and cakes or to make jam or juice.

Flavor partners. Prickly pear has a flavor affinity for banana, honeydew melon, lemon, lime, orange, tequila, and watermelon.

Nutrition. Prickly pears are a good source of magnesium and potassium and also contain calcium, vitamin C, and sodium. The prickly pear is low in calories.

Prickly pear facts and trivia. The prickly pear is also called tuna pear or tuna fig, cactus pear, Indian fig or Indian pear. In Britain the prickly pear is called the Barbary fig or pear. In Israel, the prickly pear is called Sharon’s fruit. In Spain prickly pears are known as tunas and in Italy the prickly pear is called fichi d’india.

Prickly pears are native to the tropical regions of the Americas and have been eaten by native peoples since ancient times. The prickly pear is a member of the Optunia cactus family with more than 300 species. Most originated in northwest Mexico or the southwestern United States. The best known varieties are ‘Cardona’ which has a large purplish red flower and fruit and ‘Amarilla’ which is mostly yellow.

The botanical name of the prickly pear is Optunia ficus-indica.

Prickly Pear Cactus (English)

PRICKLY PEAR NOMENCLATURE

Family: Cactaceae (Cactus family)

Latin name: Opuntia spp.

Tohono O’odham Name: I:ibhai

Spanish Names:

Fruit: tuna
Pad/s: nopal/es

IDENTIFICATION

There are 12 varieties of fruiting Opuntia cactus. Opuntia engelmannii (Englemann’s Prickly Pear) is native to the Sonoran Desert, and likely can found very near your house. Opuntia ficus indica is a larger, cultivated prickly pear that is often thornless and therefore easily harvested.

Englemann’s Prickly Pear has pinkish flower buds that open to yellow flowers. The immature fruit is green and matures to red, pink, or magenta. Pads are paddle-shaped and slightly larger than an adult’s outspread hand. Mature pads are green with medium to long spines.

PHOTOS

PRICKLY PEAR IN THE URBAN LANDSCAPE

Prickly Pear is abundant in the Sonoran Desert and provides interesting shapes, colors and textures to urban landscapes. The fruit and pads are food for birds, insects, and mammals such as javelina. They are drought-tolerant, frost-tolerant, and easy to plant and care for. When planted near, but not in, a water-harvesting basin they will grow quickly and provide a bounty of juicy fruits and pads.

PRICKLY PEAR PLANTING RECOMMENDATIONS

Plant a prickly pear cactus plant in your yard in one of two ways: plant a potted cactus, or plant a
cactus pad.

Plant a potted cactus: To find a potted plant, contact the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society to learn how adopt a rescued
cactus, or visit your local nursery (in Tucson, we recommend Desert Survivors) or farmers’ market to purchase a local pot-grown native cactus. Dig a hole slightly bigger than the pot. Position the pot close the hole. If the cactus is large with many pads, have a friend put on gloves and hold up the cactus end. An even better option is to make a sling to hold the cactus, using a piece of old
garden hose. Gently cut off the pot by slicing down the side. Then ease the cactus root ball into the hole. Turn the cactus so that it is positioned how you want it and then fill in the hole with native soil. Water the cactus well just after planting. For the first week, water once every 3-4 days; after that, water once every few weeks. Once the plant is established, it will require no additional water, but will benefit from rainwater and/or greywater.
Plant a cactus pad: Cut a medium-sized healthy pad off of a healthy cactus. Cut the pad at the base and let it sit outside in a shaded area for at least 4 days, or up to two 2 weeks. This allows for the cut to dry out, reducing the risk of fungal infection and rotting. Once the cut seems dry, dig a hole about 1 ft x 1 ft. Place your cactus pad in the hole at a slight angle so that some of
the flat side of the pad is touching the ground. New roots will sprout from this part of the cactus as well, giving it a sturdier base. Bury your cactus pad so that approximately 1/2 to 1/3 of the pad is sticking out of the ground. Water the pad well just after planting. For the first week, water once every 3-4 days; after that, water once every few weeks. Once the plant is established, it will require no additional water, but will benefit from rainwater and/or greywater.

Native Plant List for Tucson

PRICKLY PEAR FRUIT AND PADS HARVESTING BASICS

Pay attention as you work. Prickly Pear fruit juice will stain! Wipe counters and wooden surfaces immediately after use and wear an apron or old clothes when processing the fruit.

HARVEST FRUIT: Look for Prickly Pear fruits, or tunas, as they’re called in Spanish, that are dark red or purple in color. August and September tend to be the season in Tucson. Using tongs, simply pluck the fruit from the nopal pad. They should come off easily. The fine hairs on the surfaces of both the fruit and the pads are called glochids—they stick and prick, so you might consider wearing gloves as well. Though the cactus is abundant, be sure to leave ample fruit for wildlife and new cactus generation.

PROCESS FRUIT: To process, first wash the fruit by placing it in a sink full of cool water and swishing it around with a large spoon. Then place whole fruits, glochids and all, into a blender or food processor. Blend to make a slurry. Strain the slurry though a pillow case, fine mesh strainer or a colander lined with cloth. We recommend using a clean, old t-shirt or pillow case rather than cheese cloth. Use a spoon to press the juice from the seeds and skins. Let the strained juice settle. Gently pour the juice off the top, leaving most of the sediment behind. Freeze prickly pear juice in ice cube trays then transfer to airtight freezer storage bags. Pour the seeds out in the yard to start a new prickly pear patch.

Alternatively, you can put whole Prickly Pear fruits in the freezer. To thaw and process later, line a colander with a clean pillowcase or t-shirt and place over a bucket or large bowl. Place frozen fruits in the colander and allow to defrost (2-5 hours). Press on fruits with a wooden spoon as they soften to push juice through.

DRINK FRUIT JUICE: Prickly Pear fruit is a deliciously refreshing fruit celebrated for its vibrant magenta color, its unique flavor, and its cooling properties. Prickly Pear juice can be diluted with water or added to lemonade or other drinks to make a refreshing beverage. Or use it to make the regional favorites of syrup (to top pancakes or ice cream, or flavor/color margaritas) or jelly (great on toast)!

NOTE: Prickly pear juice is very cooling. Do not consume high quantities of non-diluted raw juice as this is known occasionally to cause chills and body aches. Drinking a few glasses of lemonade with a splash of prickly pear juice is absolutely fine and will give you the cooling effect you’re seeking in the dog days of August and the still-here September summer. Just start with small quantities and increase in small increments to find the amount that is right for you!

HARVEST PADS: Harvest pads, called nopales (singular: nopal) in Spanish, in early spring or after rains when pads are new. They will have small, pointed succulent or rubbery nubs that will eventually become spines. Hold the pad with kitchen tongs and cut the base of the pad from the cactus.

PROCESS PADS:With a sharp kitchen knife, scrape off the spines, which are still soft and rubbery at this young stage. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

EAT PADS: The young tender Prickly Pear pads are equally as delicious as the fruit. High in vitamins A and C and calcium, this low-carb food can help decrease blood glucose levels, which makes it a recommended food for diabetics. Prickly Pear pads make delicious additions to salads, egg dishes, and red chile. They have a slight tangy or lemony taste, the stickiness of okra, and consistency similar to cooked green beans. When you are ready to cook the pads, use a knife or the tip of a vegetable peeler cut or scoop out the spines on the flat part of the pad. (You can also do this before storing them.) Rinse the pad under cool water and then cut in strips or cubes which can be sautéed or boiled. Or place them right on the grill until they are soft and browned, or slightly charred on the outside!

NOTE: Nopales produce a gummy, healthy juice when cut. Cooking the pads will help reduce this mucilaginous quality. Be careful not to overcook them, as that can increase the gumminess. Pay attention to their consistency and experiment!

Visit our online recipe page for several Prickly Pear recipes. Additional recipes are found in Eat Mesquite! A Cookbook, available for purchase via PayPal, select retail venues, or at our millings and other events.

Click to download the information from the section above as a PDF file: Prickly Pear Fruit and Pads

PRICKLY PEAR WORKSHOP INFO

NOTE: Workshop Kits are currently being updated, and so are unavailable.

Please contact us : [email protected] for further information.

Workshop Description: The Prickly Pear workshop has been designed to be used in situations both with and without electricity and access to a computer. It is a hands-on workshop that teaches the basics of how to identify, harvest, and process prickly pear fruit and pads. It is recommended to be given in a situation where you can discuss the information and then go out when the fruit are ripe and actually harvest, giving participants hands-on experience with tasting and picking good fruit. The season for fruit is usually late summer through fall. However, if actual harvesting is not possible, the workshop can be given indoors without the harvesting component.

The workshop begins with discussion about the importance of planting native trees and plants in urban areas and using water-harvesting techniques to maintain these trees and plants around one’s home and neighborhood. Participants then engage in activities to learn how to identify native prickly pear, and how to harvest and process their fruit. The workshop focuses on the fruit, but it also covers how to harvest and use the pads. Participants learn how to preserve the prickly pear juice for long-term storage and good ways to incorporate into their meals.

This Workshop Kit Contains:

  • A flash drive with:
    • PowerPoint presentation with photos of basics of rainwater harvesting; identification of Englemann’s Prickly Pear and non-native pad cacti; identification of flower and fruit (unripe and ripe); and harvesting and processing techniques,
    • Workshop outline in Microsoft Word, and
    • Instructions for gathering plant samples and making food/beverage samples to bring to the workshop.
  • Laminated color photos of all slides in the PowerPoint presentation
  • Prickly Pear Pocket Guides for handouts
  • A copy of Eat Mesquite! A Cookbook, for display

Other Desert Foods Workshops
Desert Harvesters offers workshops on harvesting, processing, and cooking with a variety of desert foods: Mesquite, Prickly Pear Fruit and Pads, Desert Ironwood, and Palo Verde. If you prefer a generalist approach, or need a workshop that is indoors and doesn’t include harvesting, we also offer a 2-hour Desert Foods Overview which combines the individual plant kits and offers a simple introduction to these plants and foods rather than in-depth explorations into each. Contact us for more information.
Need a Workshop Instructor? Hire a Desert Harvester!
Experienced harvesters are available to teach a workshop for your organization, business, or school. Please contact us for information on availability and fees.

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Funds for this project were provided by the Urban and Community Forestry Financial Assistance Program administered through the State of Arizona Forestry Division – Urban and Community Forestry and the USDA Forest Service.

How to Eat Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit (Video)

Have you ever eaten prickly pear (genus opuntia) cactus fruit? I never knew cactus plants produced edible fruit until we moved to Ecuador. The only cactus plants I had ever seen in Canada were in little pots, growing indoors.

When researching this post I found out that some prickly pear cactus do grow in Canada, but not in the area we are from.

How to Eat Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit

Tuna is what the fruit from the prickly pear cactus is called here in Ecuador.

Watch on YouTube

We had been wanting to try some prickly pear, or tuna fruit for quite some time, so we picked some up the other day and decided to share it with you here on the blog. We didn’t pick it off of a cactus plant, we bought it at Super Maxi in Cuenca.

When I picked it up, I took for granted that all the thorns would have been removed, I was wrong! After I had a few in the bag I noticed that my fingers were full of tiny hair like thorns. Those little thorns are very fine and hard to remove!

I wasn’t quite sure how to eat prickly pear cactus fruit without getting full of thorns again, so I did some investigating.

A great suggestion is to pick the fruit off the cactus with kitchen tongs, steady it with a fork, cut along each side and then peel the skin off with the fork.

You probably won’t be carrying kitchen tongs around the grocery store with you, but putting a couple of produce bags over your hand like a glove would probably do the trick.

The thorns might not look like much, but they are a real pain!

The fruit inside looked kind of like papaya, but the seeds were mixed all throughout the fruit. I tasted a little, it was mildly sweet and tasted a bit like watermelon. I couldn’t eat it because of the seeds so I made some juice.

How to Make Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit Juice

So the question is probably not how to eat prickly pear cactus fruit, but how to drink it.

I used a strainer and kept mashing and stirring the fruit, so the juice and pulp would come through. I added a little water to wash all the fruit off the seeds. It only took about a 1/4 cup of water to make a nice glass of juice.

The juice was good and tasted a little like papaya juice. I added a little honey, but you can drink it without any sweetener.

Like most fruit, the tuna/prickly pear is good for you. It’s a powerful antioxidant and a good source of magnesium, dietary fiber and vitamin C.

For more interesting South American ingredients and recipes check out The South American Table. This book has 450 recipes and interesting facts on the history of South American cooking/ingredients.

Learn about dragon fruit – another delicious cactus fruit.

Have you tried prickly pear fruit? Did you like it? Do you have any tips about how to eat prickly pear cactus fruit?

Please share by commenting on this post.

Using and Eating Prickly Pear

Beneficial Properties of Prickly Pear

Edible Properties of Prickly Pear: All of the many varieties of Opuntia produce edible fruit and pads. The ripened fruits are succulent, somewhat sweet, and delicious. The fruits need to be twisted off (or cut from) the pads, then carefully peeled, and enjoyed fresh. Once chilled (in the refrigerator or in a stream), these fruits taste very much like melon. Even eaten unchilled along the trail, they’ll satisfy both thirst and appetite. Drinks, pies, jams, ice creams, and so forth can also be made from this fine fruit. Juice can be made simply by pressing the peeled fruits and then pouring the pressed fruit through a colander to remove the pulp and seed. Ice cream can be made by replacing prickly pear pulp (with or without seeds) for the sugar and flavoring in an ice cream recipe. You can also flavor vanilla ice cream by mixing prickly pear pulp with soft vanilla ice cream, then refreezing before serving. Peeled fruits can also be sliced thin and dried (seeds left in). The flavor is sweet with somewhat of a burnt aftertaste.

When you eat the fruits, you’ll notice the abundance of small seeds. You can either eat them with the fruit, save them to grow new cactus, or follow the Native Americans’ example of drying the seeds, and grinding them into flour. If you’re processing a lot of cactus fruit, the seeds add up quickly, and you’ll soon have enough for a few loaves of cactus seed bread.

For years when reading cactus fruit recipes, I saw the phrase “first remove seeds.” Nowhere did I find details on how to easily remove these seeds. After several experiments during the summer of 1989, Nathaniel Schleimer and I discovered the easiest method: we blended the raw peeled fruit in a food processor until it was a watery pulp full of seeds. Then we poured the blend through a colander. Approximately 98 percent of the cactus pulp went right through the colander as a liquid, leaving behind a colander full of pure seeds.

The fresh young pads, called nopales, can be found for sale in many predominantly Mexican markets. When still small and glossy green, the nutritious pads will fry up into a delectable vegetable. Scrape, peel, and slice before frying. The texture is slimy like that of okra, but the flavor is good. These can be cooked alone, or with the other vegetables, such as onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Nopales are also good gently cooked, lightly baked like squash, or diced and mixed into egg omelettes. In all these recipes, onions mix well with the cactus.

Another popular use of the prickly pear is to pickle the peeled slices (or buy them pickled). These are generally served in much the same way you’d serve string beans.

John Watkins of Harbor City, California, suggests peeling and slicing the young pads into thin slices and letting them dry. “Use these interchangeably in recipes calling for ‘leather britches,’ which are dried string beans. You can also sauté these like zucchini sticks.”

Raw, these pads have the flavor of slightly sour green peppers. The tender pads can be peeled, diced, and added to salads.

Since their water content is high, the pads and fruit can be literal life-savers when water is scarce. Chewing the raw cactus (spines removed) may not quench your thirst in the same way that drinking a tall glass of iced tea would, but it will provide the body moisture necessary to save your life.

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Medicinal Uses of Prickly Pear: An elderly Mexican lady whom I met at the L.A. New Earth Exposition in 1978 told me that she was cured of diabetes by including raw and cooked prickly pear pads in her diet. Since then, I have met at least three people who claim to have stopped their insulin injections as a result of eating prickly pear cactus. Apparently, the nopales help the pancreas to do its job of producing insulin, and there is more medical research demonstrating the beneficial value of prickly pear cactus for diabetics. I suggest that diabetics seek competent medical/nutritional advice before pursuing this as a form of treatment.

Separate research has shown that consuming the cactus fruits helps heal prostate infections.

For a thorough treatment of the the medicinal properties of the prickly pear cactus, see Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine by Ran Knishinsky.

Other Uses of Prickly Pear: Small chunks of the peeled cactus can be mixed with a container of water; the resultant slimy water can be used as a hair rinse and conditioner as well as lathered into a soap.

The dried stalks of the older prickly pear plants consist of a network of coarse fiber. Sections of this stalk can be used as scouring pads for washing pots and pans or for making artistic designs on stationery.

Periodically, a white fuzz can be observed on the prickly pear pads. Within that fuzz is a tiny crimson cochineal beetle (Dactylopius coccus) that produces a red pigment when crushed. The pigment can be used as a paint, as a fabric dye, and as an entirely safe food coloring. According to the research of Sara E. Valdes-Martinez from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Cuautitlan, the cochineal pigment produces a stable, long-lasting food coloring. Her research team found that the red hue remains stable for years, even at a temperature of 50°C. However, the pigment fades if the food’s acidity increases or decreases sharply.

My associates and I have used the juice from the crushed beetles to produce an ink for painting. Mixing the extracted juice with oil produces the best results. We’d like to hear from readers who do further experiments with this red pigment.

Prickly pear cactus is the ideal drought-tolerant, low-maintenance fence. Planted on the perimeter of your property, it will keep out most unwanted intruders, while providing you with fruit and pad. It will serve as a firebreak as well. Grazing goats will also feed on the tender pads.

Detrimental Properties of Prickly Pear

You can’t exercise too much caution when gathering the fruits and pads, for the small stickers are a days-long irritation once they’ve worked their way into the skin. Scrape or peel off the entire skin surface of the fruit or pads with a knife, or burn off the stickers.

Where Prickly Pear Can Be Found

Prickly pears are most often found in semiarid and arid regions. The plant grows best in the upper parts of alluvial plains near the base of mountains and coastal canyons.

Commonly associated with the southwestern United States, the prickly pears are found in city and desert alike. However, Opuntia is not restricted to the Southwest. Certain species are commonly found as far east as Nebraska, and one or two species are known to grow along the Atlantic Coast.

Growing Cycle of Prickly Pear

Prickly pear cactus is a perennial, which produces new pads each year, continuing to spread as the years progress. The new glossy green pads appear in the spring. The plant also flowers in the spring, and by the end of summer, the fruits are developed and ripe. The fruits are most abundant in late summer.

More from Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants

• The Benefits of Wild Edibles
• Guide to Edible Seaweed
• Guide to Wild Manzanita
• The Health Benefits of Ribwort
• Using and Eating Piñon Pine

Reprinted with permission from Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants: Second Edition by Christopher Nyerges and published by Chicago Review Press, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Second Edition.

Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear Cactus

A beauty and a beast, prickly pear is beloved for its blossoms and feared for its vicious spines. Its yellow, red, and orange cup-shape flowers last just one day, but a large clump of prickly pears will bloom for several weeks in summer, providing delicate beauty among the thorns. Don’t let the spines deter you from planting prickly pear. Position it near the middle or back of a garden where it won’t be disturbed. Or plant prickly pear along a property line where it acts as a living fence, preventing passersby from entering. Either way enjoy the vibrant colors and beauty it brings to your landscape.

genus name
  • Opuntia
light
  • Sun
plant type
  • Perennial
height
  • Under 6 inches,
  • 6 to 12 inches,
  • 1 to 3 feet,
  • 3 to 8 feet
width
  • To 6 feet wide
flower color
  • Pink,
  • Yellow
season features
  • Summer Bloom,
  • Winter Interest
problem solvers
  • Deer Resistant,
  • Drought Tolerant
special features
  • Attracts Birds
zones
  • 4,
  • 5,
  • 6,
  • 7,
  • 8,
  • 9,
  • 10,
  • 11

Low-Water Favorite

In places where rain is rare, prickly pear cactus is an exceptional plant. Design an entire garden or landscape around low-water plants like prickly pear—this is called xeriscaping. Native, low-water plants are low-maintenance and wildlife-friendly. This win-win combo is an excellent recipe for foundation plantings, landscape beds, property borders, and curbside plantings.

Xeriscape-friendly companions for prickly pear cactus include agastache, agave, big bluestem, gaillardia, and purple coneflower. Low-water gardens include all kinds of flowering plants. Check with your local extension service to learn more about low-water plants for your region.

Enjoy the ease of low-water plants with these 17 great sedums.

Prickly Pear Care Must-Knows

Prickly pear grows best in full sun and well-drained soil. Clay soil or slow-draining soil is problematic in cool regions where prickly pear will suffer in moist soil during winter months. Both drought- and heat-tolerant, this long-lived perennial tolerates sandy, rocky soil and seaside planting places.

Create a prickly garden with this guide!

Plant prickly pear cactus in spring or early summer, and water it well after planting to encourage a strong root system. It rarely needs fertilizer when planted outside. If the green pads become dull or stunted, apply an all-purpose fertilizer. In cold winter regions, the fleshy pads of prickly pear cactus typically shrink, wrinkle slightly, and take on a slight purple hue. They will expand and revive as soon as warm weather returns.

Bring your cactus plants indoors using these tips!

More Varieties of Prickly pear cactus

Prickly pear

Opuntia compressa, also called O. humifisa, is a North American species that offers golden-yellow flowers in summer. The red fruits are edible. It grows 12 inches tall and 18 inches wide. Zones 4-9

‘Pink’ prickly pear

This selection of Opuntia compressa is a hardy, easy-growing selection that offers bold pink flowers in summer. It grows 12 inches tall and 18 inches wide. Zones 4-9

Bunny ears cactus

Opuntia microdasys is native to the North American Southwest and shows off red new growth that matures to dark green pads. Cheery yellow flowers appear in early summer. It grows 3 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Zones 9-10

Spineless prickly pear

Opuntia ellisiana is a North American native that bears yellow (rarely pink, orange, or red) flowers and tiny, hidden spines. It grows 3 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Zones 7-10

Plant Prickly pear cactus with

Most muhlygrasses are high on drama, offering their beautiful floral display to dryland gardens. They have a soft, airy appearance that is welcome among agaves and other rough-texture plants that permeate low-water gardens. Pine muhly, in particular, grows best in fast-draining soil that is low in nutrients — a sandy soil is perfect. Avoid heavy clay and wet locations.

A magnificently sculptural plant for the desert garden, sotol has striking straplike blue-green leaves that make it look a bit like yucca or agave. The evergreen foliage is thin like an ornamental grass and has a pleasing fine texture year-round. Plant it where the sun can shine through the leaves in early morning or late evening, highlighting the plant’s pretty silhouette. Sotol grows best in full sun and gravelly, sandy soil. Once established, it has good cold tolerance, but be sure to give it extra protection during the first winter after planting.

Plant Database

Benefit

Use Ornamental: Attractive, Desert landscape, Blooms ornamental
Use Food: EDIBLE PARTS: Ripe fruit edible raw or in jelly. Leaf pads, fruit and seeds. Use tender young leaf pads gathered during the spring. PREPARATION: Wash leaf pads, fruit and seeds thoroughly with warm water. Do not use dish detergent or any type of sanitizer. These products can leave a residue. Peel and cut pulp into chunks or strips and cook like string beans. Batter, roast or fry pads. The interior of the pad similar to okra and can be used to thicken soups. Cut pads into pieces and use raw in salads. Remove bristles before use with a flame or by wiping off with a glove or damp cloth. Or, bake the pads in a medium-temperature oven for one-half hour, then peel the skin with the bristles attached. If a knife is used to cut out bristles, wipe after each cut, because mucilage produced by the pads will stick to blade. Roast the pads in their skin on a fire for about 15-20 minutes per side. Peel and eat the pulp after cooking. Peel or cut in half and scoop out pulp before use. Chill and eat raw or pickle after removing seeds. Dried seeds can be crushed or ground into flour and used in soup as a thickener. (Poisonous Plants of N.C.)
Use Medicinal: Amerindians poulticed peeled pads on wounds, applied juice of cactus to warts, drank pad tea for lung ailments. (Foster & Duke)
Warning: POISONOUS PARTS: Glochids (minute bristle-like, barbed hairs in clusters) on the stems (green, thickened stems resemble leaves). Severe skin irritation upon contact. Symptoms include painful skin and eye irritation following contact; internal effects in diabetics from ingestion. Toxic Principle: Unknown; possibly mechanical effect of glochids.
Conspicuous Flowers: yes

Plant of the Week

Opuntia humifusa range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Flower close up. Red center form. © 2011 David Taylor.

Looking down on green fruits. Note glochids and true leaves around top. © 2011 David Taylor.

View of a clump with flowers. Note spines. © 2011 David Taylor.

Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa (Raf.) Raf.)

By David Taylor

Eastern prickly pear is in the Cactaceae (Cactus) family. This family contains about 1,800 species all but possibly one or two native to the New World. The prickly pears are considered an old group within the cactus family with about 150 species in Opuntia. It has the largest range of any cactus in the United States and can be found from New Mexico and Montana east to Florida and Massachusetts. It is also found in Ontario. Eastern prickly pear can form large colonies or occur as a few individuals in an area. In older botanical manuals, it is often listed as Opuntia compressa.

This species is a typical cactus with a photosynthetic stem that acts as a leaf. This stem also stores water. Because of special antifreeze chemicals in its cells, it can survive the freezing temperatures of the northern and middle states. The stems or pads as they are often called can be 5 to 17 centimeters (2 to 7 inches) long and 4 to 12 centimeters (1.5 to 5 inches) wide. Pads are jointed in a linear or branched fashion.

Generally, the plants are no more than 0.5 meters (19 inches) high and tend to sprawl on the ground. Some Florida plants are shrub-like and can reach 2 meters (6.5 feet) high.

The pads are dotted with small dot-like structures called areoles. Each areole contains glochids (small barbed hairs-painful and irritating when in the skin) and may or may not have a spine in the center. Sometimes small green structures are found associated with each areole at the tip of new or actively growing pads. These are actual true leaves, but they soon fall off.

Flowers are produced at the ends of pads in early summer. They are usually yellow, but east of the Appalachian Mountains and on dunes, the center is often red to orange. The flesh of the reddish fruits is edible, but not usually very sweet unlike some other species such as the Indian Fig, Opuntia ficus-indica.

This cactus grows in open, dry areas, often on calcareous rock or thin soils. It can be found in or on fencerows, roadsides, rocky glades, rock outcrops, cliffs, old quarries, dunes, and prairie. The roots need to be dry during winter to prevent rot, so well drained sites are necessary.

For More Information

  • PLANTS Profile – Opuntia humifusa, eastern prickly pear cactus, devil’s-tongue
  • Flora of North America: Opuntia humifusa

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