Ode to the Prickly Pear

More often than not, developers of both commercial and residential areas immediately bulldoze over our native Prickly Pear Cactus. Often mistaken as a weed, this gravely misunderstood wonder has much to offer the Austin area homeowner and community. Say if on your property there was something that year round produced a green bean/okra tasting vegetable, a fruit less acidic than kiwi, vials of vitamins, seeds for flour, medicine, a natural burglar fence, insect repellent, materials for mortar, a brilliant magenta dye, and a hair conditioner, would you run a bulldozer over it?

Found as far North as Canada, south to Chile, add Africa, Greece, Israeli, and largely farmed in Sicily, The Prickly Pear Cactus (species Opunta genus) can handle a variety of temperatures. It has pads (nopales) that stack on each other up into clusters that can reach twelve feet in height and are covered with large sharp spines. The pad’s function is for water storage, photosynthesis, and flower production. As for color, if the cactus were a crayon, it would be the “forest green” one and have the waxy Crayola glow to it. The cactus’ fruit, called “Tuna” has a waxy Crayola Fuchsia (purple) glow. This waxy appearance is from the cactus’ second and very painful line of defense: glochins. Glochins are very fine, extremely tiny barbed spikes that once they get into your skin, will be there for days, causing itchiness and blisters to form.

None of this is really helping the argument of keeping these things around the house, but there is a simple solution. When harvesting anything from the Prickly Pear, wear leather gloves, clip with long handled scissors, gather with tongs, and transport in a bucket. Hen, by putting the pad or tuna to an open flame, the glochins burn right off and very deep vibrant non-waxy colors emerge.

These pads are completely edible. They can be used in salads, casseroles, soups, grilled, with omelets and prepared in a variety of other ways. Nopal’s are stocked with vitamins A, B1, 2, 3, C and the minerals: Calcium, Magnesium, Sodium, Potassium, Iron, and Fibers along with 17 amino acids. These detoxify the body with antioxidants. Research suggests that the pads help regulate blood sugar offering an insulin alternative treatment for people with type-2 diabetes. The pulp also boosts “good” HDL and absorbs “bad” LDL cholesterol.

The fruit of the Prickly Pear is also high in vitamin and water-content. It can be eaten raw, made into jam, jelly, sorbet, syrup, quick breads, and cactus candy. The seeds can be consumed with the fruit or spit out. Indians would dry the seeds and grind them into a type of pastry flour. There are at least two commercially imported liquors made from the tuna.

Because the Prickly Pear is very draught tolerant, planting it along the edges of your yard create a sharp zero-scaping fence that deters unwanted intruders. It houses the Cochineal bug who feeds on nutrients found in the cactus sap. The insect produces carminic acid deterring other insects. The carminic acid can be extracted from the insect’s body and eggs to make bright red dye that is food-safe. In Mexico, Prickly Pears are boiled and mixed in with mortar for building houses. Add Cactus pads to a container of water, agitate, strain out the cactus, but keep the mucilaginous liquid for a hair conditioner. Cutting up a pad and leaving it in a water supply prevents mosquito larva from developing. Ranchers can supplement their cattle feed by 40% with the a mixture of pads and tunas.

No weed is ever this useful, so get off the bulldozer and get out your tongs. The Prickly Pear is waiting.