Long before the dragon fruit craze, Mexico brought us the prickly pear. I can understand why it may not seem the most attractive basket on display at the farmer’s market. It had a weird-colored skin that’s either a really dark green or burgundy – neither of which engender refreshing thoughts. It also lacks that lustrous sheen fresh fruit generally boasts but do not discredit or underestimate its merit.
The prickly pear is one superfood that’s powerful and refreshing! Moreover, its flavor is reminiscent of what a fruit would taste like if a watermelon got a starapple/caimet (Chrysophyllum caimito) pregnant. It’s divine but getting to the good stuff is like an adventure through the jungle. First, you’ve got to know how to conquer the spines and glochids, then break open the soft skin to maneuver your way around the hundreds of hard seeds before you get to Prickly Pear Peak. We’ll explore all of those avenues and more in this article. We’ll also discover all the ways it’ll be worth it when you learn of the health benefits these guys have to offer. Let’s dive in!
WHAT IS A SUPERFOOD
Essentially, a superfood is one that’s extremely nutrient-rich; one that aids in the preservation of or restoration of good health when consumed. They’re basically nature’s medicine except they usually don’t carry an unpleasant taste which is unlike most of the medicines my mother (a nurse) introduced me to as a child. If a food that was entirely good to your body was appealing to the eyes, wonderfully fragrant and deliciously refreshing and satisfying all in one, wouldn’t you want to have it? Well, there are quite a few foods that carry these properties and the prickly pear is one of them.
Prickly pear or opuntia cactus are some of the easiest plants to grow. They are fast-growing cactus of pads on pads that root very easily and thrive on neglect whether outdoors in your landscape, I the wild or potted in a window. Admittedly, they’re not as easy to work with as the Peruvian apple or hylocereus groups because they produce much more spines than most of those relatives but they’re all quite rewarding. Additionally, the spines are generously scattered all about the columns so this plant does not intend to make harvesting easy but we’ve found ways around that which we’ll expound on a little later on.
Now, I’ve encouraged you in previous articles on fruit-bearing cacti not to allow your plants to go without some love and attention for very long periods of you intend to get a strong yield – though we know cacti can survive eons without care. Opuntia is different. It matters not if you plant it on fertile ground or stone or if you give it plenty water or just a little. Prickly pear will shower you with gorgeous, mesmerizing blooms and almost all of them will be followed by the delicious fruit. I’ve seen them thrive on rocks, sand, loam and humus. I like to mix in some sand and sawdust for proper balance and breathability. You can water liberally but try to allow the soil to dry between watering. A little stress is good for your cactus. Before long, you’ll start to notice magnificent flowers forming all over your cactus. Depending on the variety these could be red, orange, peach, yellow, gold, cream, pink, or white.
Here is where the prickly pear also has an advantage over their more pliable relatives like Peruvian apples and dragon fruit which carry little to no spines or glochids by comparison. The cacti mentioned above flower at night so you may not get to enjoy the beautiful blooms but the prickly p
ear is different. Flowers open up at all hours of the day and there is usually a profusion of them at a time. This completely nullifies your pollination budget as there is no added pressure to provide lighting while blooms are open to attract natures nocturnal pollinators. Your daytime winged creatures will serve the purpose just fine.
There is also a spineless variety of opuntia that bears fruit with no spines and very few glochids which makes handling very easy. In my opinion, it’s even more fun to grow and easy enough for you to enjoy caring for if you have children in your household. If you do have a
spineless opuntia in your home, particularly indoors, you may want to employ some simple changes to the environment to induce pollination like a fan for example.
You can start looking for blooms within six to eighteen months depending on your climatic conditions. Treatment also bears great influence on how soon your prickly pear cactus begins to flower. I can personally attest to plants fruiting in six to eighteen months. Some of our clients have sent photos and testimonials of flowers and fruit within three months of receipt and that tends to happen in more tropical regions. Our first was in New York and it took almost twelve months to flower although it was a very young plant. Your results may vary.
Your flowers will be followed by green fruit that can be as spiny as the pads. The skin will slowly change from green to dark-green or burgundy when ripening – depending on the variety as some ripe fruit can carry any of the colors noted above. Now comes the most rewarding part of the prickly pear experience – harvesttime!
The possessions on which we place the greatest value in this life usually come at greater cost or expense – that dream car, your perfect home, the job of a lifetime you climbed ladder after ladder to get to… I say all that to encourage you. Like I’d mentioned before, cactus plants have their own line of defense, especially some of our family’s favorites like opuntia and trichocereus. Their defense is wrought with spines and glochids that can prove painful and annoying to deal with if they get hooked into your skin but what they protect is worth the trouble and I believe they are treasures we should all the luxury of enjoying so come harvesttime, do not be daunted. I’m not saying you should be prepared for pain. I’m imploring you to be prepared so you won’t have to encounter pain because it is a very real risk. Ensure you have, thick, rubber gloves just for use with your cactus plants before tackling the establishment or maintenance of a cactus pot or garden. Do not use the gloves for any other activities. Always store them away from common areas, especially if you have children or pets that aren’t immersed in water.
After picking your fruit – while still wearing your gloves – use a knife or garden shears to remove all spines and glochids then set your fruit aside. I like to lay out a few sheets of old newspapers or magazines before I get started so those pesky bits will fall onto them and cleanup will be easy afterward. When you’ve folded and discarded your collection of thorns and glochids, you can carefully remove your gloves and store them. Now, all that’s left is to enjoy your fruit.
Here comes the fun part! The fruit is very juicy but extremely seedy like a freshly picked watermelon but with more density and a generous distribution of much harder seeds! The easiest way to enjoy it is to cut your fruit into quarters vertically and peel back the skin. They separate from the fruit almost effortlessly. You can blend your pulp with water (I like to add ginger and lime or passion fruit pulp). You can strain off the pulp and what you do with your prickly pear juice from here is up to you. Experiment and enjoy!
Don’t underestimate your opuntia fruit. It is very versatile so don’t be afraid to experiment with juices, punch, sherbet, sauces, pastries, salads, teas, and so much more… AND you can do it with a clear conscience. The cactus fruit is entirely wholesome. It means your body no harm in any way. They are some of the richest sources of several antioxidants, vitamins and minerals like Vitamin C, that help to lower cholesterol, boost the immune system, decrease the risk of diabetes, prevent cancer and heart disease, aid in weight loss, improve digestion, boost energy, stimulate bone growth, strengthen blood vessels, defend against bacteria and fungi, eliminate inflammation throughout the body and help in the overall functioning of the body’s systems. They contain no cholesterol! Prickly pear can reduce your chances of conditions like constipation and can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and diseases like colorectal cancer. Carotene is another component of opuntia fruits, and carotene has been linked to a number of anti-carcinogenic qualities, as well as reducing the size of tumors (OrganicFacts). They help maintain healthy teeth, hair, bones, skin and so much more and can also help you nullify stress. If you’re pregnant, worry not. My doctor allowed me to eat as much of fruit from cactus as I liked (and Lord knows there wasn’t much I liked besides cactus fruit) while I was pregnant with my daughter. Studies have found no harmful substances in the fruits, not even for women who are pregnant or nursing. There is no loss or trade. You don’t have to give up something to enjoy this opuntia cactus fruit. It’s delicious and refreshing and perfectly low-calorie and the few calories it has are all good for you… so dive in and I hope you enjoy the journey to discovery as much as I have.