For today’s post I am going to dive into the Prickly Pear (Opuntia). It is large cactus with paddle like leaves. They grow abundantly in Arizona and across most of the hot, arid states of the southwest and Mexico. They are easy to propagate and grow. The well known prickly pear fruit is used in jellies, syrups,
In my own neighborhood there are hedges made exclusively of thornless prickly pears. One neighbor’s hedge is over 8 feet high. Interestingly, the thornless variety was born through careful breeding by Luther Burbank in the latter part of the 1800’s (you can read his entire story here). He had hoped that the spineless breed would give grazing cattle a supplement for their water needs. As it turns out, he could not permanently breed out the thorns. If a cactus faces stress it will push out a most prickly pin cushion.
One of the wonderful aspects of prickly pears is the fruit. The easy part is knowing that all species of prickly pear fruit (and the whole plant!) is non-toxic and quite delicious to eat. The hard part? Harvesting them. A woman here in Arizona uses a set of long hot dog tongs and a plastic bucket.
My personal favorite way to harvest them is at the store after all the thorns are removed. I have an aversion to wandering off the beaten path, into the desert, with scorpions and rattle snakes. I like to stay far away from the things that are poisonous.
Bonus! These beauties are good for you too! They aren’t classified as a super food, but they should be. High in fiber, antioxidants, and carotenoids they rank right up the with the best of the green foods. It is promoted for treating diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and hangovers. It’s also touted for its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. I think I’ll start eating these by the basket full and live to be 110! Before you go too crazy munching on these, be aware that your stomach may need a little bit of time to get used to the fiber.
The prickly pear cactus is also a nice place for pack rats and other rodents to build their homes. It is a great place for them to nestle in for the winter months and find a protected place from their various predators.
Although this plant looks intimidating it is worth getting past that and discover all that you can do with it. Whether you make smoothies from the fruit or toss a salad with parts of the paddles, you will have a plant that just keeps on giving. Just beware of the thorns. They are sharper than you can imagine.
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