In an isolated corner of our ranch we have a prickly pear cactus growing. No one knows how it got there. It took up residence years ago and is now quite settled in. It seems to have an attitude of “I’m here to stay.” After all, its species has been around for thousands of years with a history dating back to the Aztec culture.
They grow wild throughout the American Southwest down to South America and up to Canada. The plant has spread by trade to Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia. It has been a staple of the Mexican and Central American diet for centuries. In parts of the United States, it is popular as an exotic gourmet dish and is a healthy addition to ones diet. The pears have a taste compared to kiwis and the pads have a flavor comparable to green beans with a texture like okra.
It is said that the prickly pear has a lot of potassium, calcium and protein. It also reportedly lowers cholesterol levels, decreases the risk of diabetes, boosts the immune system, stimulates bone growth, prevents certain cancers, reduces the risk of Alzheimers, aids in weight loss attempts and eliminates inflammation throughout the body. Wow, I just thought the cactus was a prickly nuisance.
Here is an interesting fact. The cochineal insect feeds on the pads of the prickly pear cactus. The bugs are harvested by brushing them off the cactus pads. The bugs are dried, then ground into a powder, mixed with calcium salts and water to make a carmine dye which is a bright red. This dye is used as an organic colorant in your favorite foods and lipstick. Sounds gross to me.
The pads, with thorns removed, are used and cooked like a vegetable. The petals of the flowers can be added to salads. The pears should be harvested when they are bright purple and just before starting to wrinkle.
If you want to forage for the pears yourself, be advised that they look friendly with fuzzy dots, but those dots actually have millions of invisible hairlike thorns. Trust me, don’t touch them. Use tongs or a fork. Never touch the skin of a prickly pear fruit. Seriously. Using a fork, peel the skin away. You think you are done? Wrong. Inside the fruit are zillions of hard little seeds. It would be like trying to eat gravel. After successfully removing the fruit from its prickly attack outside and the flesh from the seeds inside, you have something close to ambrosia. It does not work well as an edible fruit, but yields wonderful juice. You can enjoy the tasty juice, or as a delicious margarita or make into yummy candy. Note: now you might want to do research on how to remove cactus thorns, because no matter how hard you try to be careful, you will get some on your skin.
The prickly pear is also a prime source of food for the giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands. My tortoise, Tommy, loves the pear too.
When I drive by our prickly pear cactus now I give it a lot more respect.
“A prudent person profits from personal experience, a wise one from the experience of others” – Voltaire.