Wild Edibles Profile: Prickly Pear
Walking through any arid part of North America you are bound to come across this icon of the desert; the prickly pear cactus. With large green pads, red globular fruits, and long intimidating spines it is a true desert specialist. It requires little water and thrives in sandy soils. Each year the leaves and fruit are harvested and turned into a number of delicious and innovative recipes well known to the people that live throughout its range. Learning to identify this desert plant will give you the chance to add a delicious ingredient to your foraging diet and give you access to a whole new wealth of traditional culinary practices.
Prickly pear cactus isn’t a single species, yet is actually made up of a number of different species throughout the arid lands of North America that all share the same common name. They can grow anywhere from a few centimeters to two meters tall. All of the species under this name are characterized by large flat fleshy pads that replace normal leaves on other plants. They have thick outer skins to retain as much moisture during the long dry season. Flowers bloom along the margins of the pads in bright yellow, red and purple, and turn into large fleshy fruit that ripens to a deep purple reddish color.
The prickly pear is best known for the small clusters of spines growing over the surface of the pads and fruits. These clusters of spines are known as glochids. They are difficult to remove and easily get lodged in the skin of anything or anyone getting too close. They are an evolutionary defense mechanism to protect against grazing from desert animals wanting to take advantage of the valuable water stored in its flesh.
Prickly pear cactus is specially adapted to the arid landscapes found across North America. They grow in the high elevations of central and northern Mexico right down to the sea. They thrive in the deserts of the southwest USA and across Mexico, but can also be found across the Great Plains up into southern central Canada.
The most important use of prickly pear is the fruit. These large fruits are harvested each year for a variety of uses such as preserves, juicing and fresh. The high water content in the fruit makes it an excellent fruit for jellies and compotes. The fresh juice is used to flavor drinks and make a perfect addition to margaritas. If you have access to a lot of fruit and have a sweet tooth that is hard to satisfy then making candied cactus fruit is a great option for you.
The pads are harvested alongside the fruit and are found in a number of Mexican dishes. They can be oiled and roasted, or cut into strips and sautéed with garlic and added as a delicious side dish to any main course. Many grocery stores also stock pickled cactus pads. This tangy treat is a great additive for wraps and tacos alike.
Prickly pear is high in fiber, vitamin-C, and magnesium. It has been found to have a beneficial impact on lowering cholesterol levels and due to its high fiber content can help with weight loss. There are a number of studies that can be searched to give more information on the health benefits of prickly pear, but for general purposes, it is an appealing ingredient to cook with regardless.
Depending heavily on where they are found prickly pear fruit can be harvested from early summer to early fall. The best advice is to use color as your guide. A deep purple reddish colour is ready to harvest. Likewise, green is unripe and should be left. Harvesting the pads is a little different. As long as they are a nice green colour then they can be harvested at any time of the year. The only consideration is to refrain from harvesting the pads when the plant is in flower. Because the flowers grow directly from the pads it is best to leave it for this period.
How to Harvest
Harvesting prickly pear cactus is easy once you get past the spines. A pair of tongs can replace your sensitive palms when picking the fruits from the plants. You could use gloves with rubber palms but some spines are persistent and will still find a way to prick you. The best thing to do is avoid this altogether by prying them from the plant with tongs. Place the fruits in a bowl and continue picking until you have all you need. After they are harvested you can use a small knife to scrape off the spines and small hairs, or just peel the outer skin from the juicy center. When the fruit is ripe it will be red and should come off the plant with ease.
Another method for harvesting the fruit is a bit more of a process, but it produces no risk of being pricked. Using a small blowtorch you can singe off any and all spines. Without burning the outside of the fruit, but still applying enough heat to completely remove all spines, this method will give you a smooth fruit ready for consumption.
Prickly pear has the advantage of growing in large clusters and each plant produces an even larger number of fruits and pads. For normal consumption purposes, it would be quite difficult to harvest enough to have a negative impact on the population as you would see with many other plant species. Harvesting no more than a few pads from each plant and leaving some fruit behind for animals to enjoy will be enough to ensure a sustainable harvest and a happy ecosystem.