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Prickly Pear
(Opuntia engelmannii)
aka: Indian Fig, Cactus Pear

by Zombie Chick

Warning: Too many prickly pear pads eaten at one time can cause diarrhea. The pads contain oxalic acid, which can hinder calcium absorption. Too much of the raw fruit can cause constipation in some people. And the most important warning about prickly pears… Watch out for the spines! Even if you purchase the pads or fruit in a supermarket, check them for prickles before eating. Promptly remove any spines embedded in your skin. Keep a close eye out for the downy spines (glochids) also. They are easy to miss when cleaning.

Most people who have grown up in the South or Southeast Texas area are familiar with this cactus. It David Montano with Prickly Pear apples picked near Matagorda Baygrows throughout the state in fields, pastures, and even along the beach. The flat "leaves" or "pads" make an excellent cooked vegetable when young and tender. At this stage they are called "nopalitos". The nopalitos are mild and mucilaginous, similar to okra. They even have the same thickening effect on soups and stews. The flowers range from yellow to a dark salmon color. They are located along the margin on the top edge of the pads. The red, maroon or purplish fruits (also known as tunas) are cylinder-shaped and develop below the flower. Prickly pears are grown for food in Mexico, Greece and Italy. You can find both the pads and the pears in the produce department of most large supermarkets and at farmer's markets.

Health/Medical InfoPrickly Pear apples near Matagorda Bay area

The fruit contains lots of potassium and beta-carotene, vitamin C, calcium, and phosphorus. The pads provide beta-carotene and potassium, and the seeds are high in protein and oils. The pads soothe the stomach and are good for the lungs and kidneys. The fruit is a gentle diuretic, used in treating kidney stones and ulcers. Don't be surprised though, if after eating the fruit, your urine turns a crimson color for a short time - this is normal.

Facts and Fancies...
Cactus Bullet

There are downy spines on the fruit and nopalitos. Harvest them in potato or flour sacks, and be sure to wear leather gloves and long, thick pants. Twist the fruits from the pads so that the pad is not torn.

Cactus Bullet

The roasted seeds produce a nutty flavor and can be ground to be used as a meal or soup thickener.

Cactus Bullet

There are no poisonous look-alikes for prickly pear.

Cactus Bullet

Deer and javelinas forage on prickly pear.

Cactus Bullet

Various Indian tribes gathered the fruit, sliced off the ends, sliced the fruits down one side, and dried the pulp in the sun. It was then preserved for use during the winter.

Harvest the young pads by grasping them with tongs and slicing them at the stem joints. Hold the pads over a flame to singe both the long spines and the glochids, then scrape off any remaining spines with a knife. Rinse the pads well, and check them thoroughly for any tiny spines tha may cling to the surface. Slice the pads into thin strips, and drop them into boiling water to cook for about ten minutes. Drain off the water, and rinse the nopalitos to wash off some of the slippery gum. The nopalitos are now ready to use. If you use older pads, remove the tough skin by scraping it off with a knife, and cut out the more fibrous sections.

Note: If you choose to harvest from the wild, PLEASE BE RESPONSIBLE. Don't overharvest. Take only small amounts from individual areas. Remember that the wildlife and ecosystem depend on the cactus and fruit more than you do. After all, you don't want to take so many that there won't be any to harvest next year!

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