Lee Allen
Hualapai learned to make jelly from the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.

Ouch! But So Delicious. Picking Apart the Prickly Pear

Dale Carson

If you have not grown up with this fruit and been shown how to harvest it, I highly recommend that you buy it! 

If you live in arid areas of the southwest where it grows, you have probably been told not to touch it even with gloves on. 

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Cactus pears are also known as opuntia, a genus of the cactus family cactaceae. Other names are chollas, tuna, nopal or nopales.

Prickly pears are not pears, of course, but named for their shape. Even so, many are flatish with glochids (prickles) that are quite harmful to skin, very nasty indeed. Those who do pick them use heavy gloves, tongs and pliers.

The Tequesta people who lived in southeast coastal Florida until the mid-1800s would roll the glochids in the sand, sanding them off. Today, many folks say to rotate them around in a campfire to roast and also remove the spines.

Totally native to the Americas, prickly pears have traveled to many parts of the world—Austrailia, Europe, the Middle East, any place with the right climate. 

Mexico is the largest grower commercially; the plant really flourishes there and is utilized in many ways. The red dyes used in Aztec weaving come from a beetle that feeds exclusively on Opuntia. The fruit not only contains a large amount of vitamin C, magnesium and fiber, but new studies indicate it may be helpful in lowering blood glucose for diabetics and aid in lowering cholesterol levels. 

As a medicine, prickly pear cactus is used to fight obesity, colitis, some viral infections and alcoholic hangovers to boot! Not just a food and medicine, the cactus is also used in candies, jellies, sorbet, and as a juice for many drink concoctions. 

So, what does it taste like? The taste is mild in the same way an artichoke is mild, but this fruit can vary in intensity. Some say it has a strong watermelon flavor, others say sweet and sour or crisp. I’d say each have their own distinct taste, though similar. If that isn’t confusing enough, you’ll just have to give them a try. They are available at markets from spring into fall fresh, but come pickled in cans as well. Freida Kahlo, the Mexican artist and flamboyant hostess as the wife of Diego Rivera, was a big fan of nopales and using them in many of her salad recipes. They really are fine, delicate additions to salad.

Deluxe Cactus Pear Salad 

6 medium nopales, peeled and sliced into1/4-inch cubes
2 avocados, also into ¼-inch cubes
1 bell pepper, remove core and seeds,  sliced in thin strips
1 red onion, chopped
½ bunch of cilantro, chopped fine
1 big fresh tomato, seeded and chopped fine
¼ cup fresh lime (or lemon) juice
¼ cup good olive oil
1 generous tablespoon honey
½ teaspoon chili powder

Prepare all the vegetables as above. Combine lime (or lemon) juice in a separate small bowl with the olive oil, honey and chili power until emulsified. Pour over chopped vegetables, toss very lightly. Good at room temperature or chilled.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I grew up with prickly pear all around our home. My grandmother used to make the jelly and we'd also use the cactus leaves to eat (most often in an omelet, but sometimes just fried). If anyone has ever read Joseph Bruchac's book on the Code Talkers of WWII, you'll find that many Navajo Marines used these to supplement their water rations while on maneuvers. That kept the myth that the NDNs of the Southwest were the toughest soldiers. :)