More than a listing of plant types and general facts, Guild to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Second Edition (Chicago Review Press, 2014) is full of fascinating folklore, personal anecdotes, and tasty recipes perfect for anyone who is interested in living closer to the earth. Christopher Nyerges — co-director of the School of Self-Reliance — offers hikers, campers and foragers an array of tips for harvesting and consuming wild edibles. This excerpt espouses the benefits of eating prickly pear, as well as the medicinal uses of the plant.
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Prickly Pear Opuntia spp.
Cactus Family: Cactaceae
Most Prominent Characteristics of Prickly Pear
Overall Shape and Size: Prickly pear grows in clusters with flat, broad, oval fleshy pads, which are its stems, and is covered with numerous spines, which are its leaves.
Flowers: The many-petaled flowers are purple, yellow, orange, or red. The petals are somewhat fleshy. The corolla (petals united) is circular in outline or wheel-shaped from above. The sepals are thick and green or partly colored.
Fruit: Throughout the summer and early fall, the mature purple, red, or yellow fruits grow from the tips of the pads. The fruits, which are full of seeds, are covered with small hairlike spines called glochids.
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.
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
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.