How to Eat Cactus: Opuntia And Prickly Pears

This desert dweller has long been sought as a fruit and vegetable.

| May/June 1984

In tales about the West, the cactus is sometimes portrayed as a water-bearing plant that saves thirsting cowpokes lost in the desert. But any hungry range rider worth his spurs would know that some types can provide right good eating, too, especially those known as Indian figs, nopales, prickly pears, or beaver tail cacti.

In fact, there are dozens of varieties of these hardy forageables. They're members of the genus Opuntia, which encompasses well over 200 species. These can be divided into two broad groups: the inedible—or at least basically unpalatable—cholla cacti (which have slender, rounded stems) and the edible prickly pears (distinguished by flat pads resembling beavers' tails).

Many people are surprised to learn that some kinds of prickly pear cactus can be found as far east in this country as Massachusetts. For the really good eating types, though, you have to go to the Southwest, where the spiny plants can be seen growing wild along highways and on the open range. In some areas, in fact, they've become so numerous that they're considered a pest weed by ranchers and farmers.

In Mexico, though, the cacti are raised commercially, and the fruit (called tuna) and the edible pads (nopales) are marketed. If you don't have access to wild cactus and can't grow it in a backyard patch, you may be able to find it canned in the Mexican foods section of your supermarket.

Forage and Eat Cactus Carefully

Although it's a great low-cost food, cactus is shunned by most folks simply because they're intimidated by the plant's spikes and bristles. This is understandable, since the spines (which are virtually absent in some species) and the tiny, bristly glochids (the real troublemakers) can inflict irritating wounds. But the fact is, gathering can be a safe and easy task if you use the proper equipment: a sack, a sharp knife, a long handled fork or tongs, and heavy gloves.

To "pick" a pad or pear, jab the quarry with your fork, or grab it with tongs, to get a firm hold on it . . . cut it off at the joint . . . and drop the harvest into your bag.

7/9/2014 12:49:40 AM

Can someone out there tell me what this fruit is that I bought last night. I'm in L.A. so it is most likely from here or Mexico. It's round- about the size of a small cantalope- about 5-6 inches in diameter.It's round but its irregular. Not a perfect sphere like a melon.The fruit shell itself is green but it is covered with the most vicious needles- like a porcupine's needles- so I'm assuming it's a cactus.Alot of needles. The woman I bought it from said to boil it for 30 minutes and then peel it. She swears it's edible. It must be. I have seen it in other Mexican grocery stores. I'm not going near it til I know what it's called and maybe one of you can confirm its preparation. Thanks, J

10/1/2013 3:45:02 PM

Hello,I have a cactus growing in my yard it has flat beaver tail shape green flats with the red prickley pear fruit growing on top. I wanted to know if this cactus is safe to eat.

Irene Faver
12/10/2010 12:47:09 PM

Hi I live in Mexico. The above address is a mail pick up address. For those of you interested in nopales cactus as a food. It is wonderful in potatoe salad instead of dill pickle but you must cook nopales by cleaning the spines, chopping in 1/4 inch squares and boiling it in salt water with some chopped onion and a clean copper penny, for about 10 minutes. The penny causes the slimy sap to drain off in a colander. Then just rinse it in cold water. You can scramble it with eggs. Make a nopales bacon or ham and cheese omelet,mmmmm. Combine cooked cold nopales, cooked pasta,Chopped ham, chopped onion, minced garlic, and oil and vinegar dressing for a cool summer salad. There are tons of ways to fix it . You can cut it in strips and use it like string beans to make dilled nopales. I can buy it down here already despined and chopped. You must boil it and drain it to use in any recipe. I have seen it in supermarkets in the states. but if you by one plant and break off paddles at the joints after it starts to grow, put them in damp sand, water sparingly, in a warm climate with a mild winter you will soon have a crop. Eat only the young tender paddles let the older part of the plant continue to produce your crop.

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