Prickly Pear Cactus (English)
Family: Cactaceae (Cactus family)
Latin name: Opuntia spp.
Tohono O’odham Name: I:ibhai
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.
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.
Plant a prickly pear cactus plant in your yard in one of two ways: plant a potted cactus, or plant a
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.
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. [We recently heard from some folks who had a bad reaction from drinking about a half cup of juice diluted in water.] 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
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.
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.