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How to Harvest, Prepare, and Eat Prickly Pear Cactus

Suzanne has been an online writer for over seven years. Her articles often focus on skin care and gardening.

The prickly pear is both edible and nutritious

The prickly pear is both edible and nutritious

What Is Prickly Pear?

Native to the Western hemisphere, the prickly pear is a member of the Opuntia genus of the cactus family Cactaceae. This type of cactus is a common sight in arid or semi-arid regions of the world, particularly in Mexico, the Americas, the Mediterranean, Australia, and Africa.

Although the prickly pear cactus is the only member in the Opuntia genus of cacti, there are over 200 different species within the genus. Every species of prickly pear cactus shares several striking features:

Prickly Pear Characteristics

  • Paddle-Like Stems: Their large paddle-like shaped leaves, also known as nopales, are actually flattened stems or branches. They are edible and can be cooked as a vegetable. Mexican cuisine makes frequent use of nopales.
  • Fruits: The fruits, also known as tunas, vary in color from yellow-green to deep magenta. They vary in size from that of a small plum to that of a large kiwi, and the sweetness depends on ripeness.
  • Flowers: The flowers vary in color from yellow, orange, red, to mauve. They are edible, as well.

Other Names

Prickly pear goes by many different names, depending on where in the world you are. Common names include nopal or nopales, sabra, tuna (fruit), opuntia, paddle cactus, Barbary fig, and Indian fig.

Prickly Pear Pads (Nopales)

The flat green pads of the prickly pear cactus (actually the stems) are eaten like a vegetable. Thick and fleshy, they are widely used in Mexico as a staple food in the diet.

When cooked, their flavor is comparable to green beans and their texture is similar to okra. The pads are often sold whole, though you can also find them cut up in strips or cubes and bagged for convenience.

If you fancy harvesting your own stems from the wild or your backyard, no problem—but you need to make sure you follow a few pointers.

Don't forget to wear gloves when harvesting the pads!

Don't forget to wear gloves when harvesting the pads!

How to Harvest Nopales

  1. Wear thick gloves or use a long pair of tongs, as the spines are extremely irritating if lodged in the skin.
  2. Pick young stems that are approximately the size of an adult hand and half an inch thick. Bright green, firm ones that are harvested in early spring will be the most flavorful and succulent, and they will have fewer spines. Thicker, older pads have a thicker sap, which many people find have an unpleasant taste.
  3. Cut the nopales with a sharp paring knife (or twist off). Be sure to leave an inch of stem behind for it to re-sprout. Cutting is preferable to twisting off; it is less stressful to the plant and helps keep the plant healthy.
  4. Collect the nopales into a large plastic container or even wrap them in newspaper if you are harvesting in the garden. You need to remove the spines and glochids (clusters of tiny barbed spines) as soon as possible.

How to Remove the Spines and Glochids: 3 Methods

Some species of prickly pear may not have spines, but they will all have glochids, which are clusters of tiny, hard-to-see barbed spines. The glochids are particularly hard to remove (and painful!) if they become embedded in the skin, so it's important to take care during this process. Protect your hands by wearing gloves!

  1. Potato peeler: Peel the pads with a potato peeler to remove all the spines and glochids. Rinse thoroughly.
  2. Blow-torch or flame: Another method of preparing the pads is to burn off the spines and glochids with a blow-torch or over a flame using the tongs.
  3. Elmer's glue or tape: Yet a third method is using Elmer’s glue. Apply the glue over the spines and allow dry until a “skin” forms. The spines lift easily when you peel off the glue. This will also work for any spines embedded from the cactus fruit and works for splinters. If you don’t have the glue, try using duct tape or masking tape instead.

Whichever method you choose, make sure you double-check carefully to make sure you haven't missed any spines or glochids.

How you are using this vegetable will determine whether you leave the pads whole or cut them into strips or cubes. If you are cutting them, wipe the knife after each cut on kitchen paper. There may still be glochids present.

How to Store Fresh Nopales

If you are not using them immediately, you may store them in the fridge. Wrap them tightly in Clingfilm or plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to two weeks.

How to Cook Nopales

The prickly pear cactus pads, or nopales, may be used in a variety of nutritious dishes, including salads, stews, omelets, casseroles, breads, and tortillas. They may also be simply pickled in brine and used as a condiment. The possibilities are near limitless!

In terms of cooking preparation, the pads may be boiled, grilled, steamed, or sauteed.

  • Boiled: When boiling the pads, you may have to change the water and re-boil a few times. The sap that comes from the pad may be thick. As a guide, the thicker the pad, the thicker the sap. After boiling, drain off the sap and rinse the pads in cold water.
  • Grilled: When grilling, season well with salt and pepper. The pads are ready when they are slightly brown in color and tender to the touch. They could also be seasoned with a little olive oil, a squeeze of lime juice, and a little salt.
  • Sauteed or steamed: Sauteeing and steaming also work well for cooking the nopales.
If you are driving through desert or arid regions, keep an eye out for the prickly pear.

If you are driving through desert or arid regions, keep an eye out for the prickly pear.

Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit

The fruit of the prickly pear cactus is called a prickly pear or a tuna.

  • Shape: Oval
  • Size: Range from that of a small plum to that of a large kiwi
  • Color: Range from yellow-green to deep magenta
  • Sweetness: The yellow-green fruits are less ripe and sweet, whereas the deep red to purplish ones are the most ripe and the sweetest. In Mexico, the yellow-green tunas are the most popular to eat, even though they are not as sweet.
  • Outer skin: Tough skin featuring glochids (and some may also have spines)
  • Inner flesh: Fleshy, juicy pulp with edible seeds (though some people prefer to remove the seeds).

As with the nopales (prickly pear cactus stems), the fruit has glochids. Sore-bought prickly pear fruit should be spine free and safe to handle without gloves. If you are harvesting the fruit yourself, though, they will need to be thoroughly processed to remove the spines and glochids. Make sure you use gloves and a pair of tongs (long BBQ style tongs are perfect).

This deep red prickly pear is very ripe and will be very sweet.

This deep red prickly pear is very ripe and will be very sweet.

The yellow-orange prickly pear is less ripe and will be less sweet.

The yellow-orange prickly pear is less ripe and will be less sweet.

How to Harvest the Fruit

When harvesting your own fruit, remember to wear gloves and use a pair of long tongs. While all cactus fruit is edible, not all will be necessarily ripe so look for the darker-skinned fruits before they start to wrinkle. They will detach pretty easily, but use a knife if needed.

Place them in a container, colander, or wrap them in newspaper or even a few plastic bags, depending on where you are collecting them from.

How to Prepare the Fruit

  1. Wearing gloves and using tongs, place 5 to 6 fruits at a time in a colander. Rinse gently under cold water by swirling around. This will remove all the hard-to-see glochid spines.
  2. Keep doing this for 3 to 4 minutes, taking care not to bruise the delicate fruit.
  3. When fully satisfied, remove the fruits from the colander and pat dry.
  4. With a sharp kitchen knife, slice off the top and the bottom of the fruit.
  5. Cut the fruit lengthwise just through the skin (similar to peeling an orange) and make a slit. Use the knife to help lever off and peel off the thick skin.

How to Eat the Fruit

You can eat prickly pear whole, which I find to be deliciously refreshing and cooling on a hot summer's day. You can also add it into a variety of dishes such as salads, jams, jellies, yogurts, and breads, Sweet treats like sorbets, candies, and syrups are another great way to use this fruit, or you could use it to concoct tasty drinks, including juices, smoothies, and wines.

When I eat the fruit by itself, I prefer to either remove the seeds ahead of time or simply spit them (as you might with a slice of watermelon).

Prickly pear jam, served with cream cheese on homemade bread. Delicious!

Prickly pear jam, served with cream cheese on homemade bread. Delicious!

Health Benefits (Pads and Fruit)

Prickly pear has many health benefits. It is a good source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, amino acids, Vitamins A and C, fiber, carotenoids, and antioxidants. It also has antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. It is believed that this fruit may help protect against cardiovascular disease as well as obesity.

Some research has suggested that the fruit may help lower cholesterol, prevent hangovers, and protect against Type-2 diabetes, though more studies are required.

Possible Side Effects

When introducing a new food into your diet, it is advisable to take caution. Some side effects associated with prickly pear include nausea, mild diarrhea, increased stool volume, increased stool frequency, headaches, and fullness of the stomach.

Warning: Do not eat prickly pear if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you will be undergoing surgery within the next two to three weeks.

If you are taking medication, always seek medical advice when considering adding this food—or any new ingredient—to your diet.

The flower of the prickly pear is edible.

The flower of the prickly pear is edible.

Cosmetic Uses for Prickly Pear

Prickly pear is so versatile—not only can it be eaten but it has cosmetic uses, as well! Some of the products it has been incorporated into include shampoos, soaps, skin oils, skin creams, face masks, fragrances, and lip balms.

Final Thoughts

Cacti are an incredibly fascinating group of succulents. Perceived by some as annoying, tough, spiny, and menacing, they are an incredibly important part of the desert ecosystem, providing a nutritious food source for animals and humans alike.

More Surprising Edible Plants

Here are two more plants that you may be surprised to learn produce edible (and nutritious) fruits.

Comments

Gerald Adams on May 22, 2020:

I have what I think is eastern prickly pear growing on my land. They have bright yellow flowers on them now. I have never seen the fruit like I see in these photos. Does the eastern have fruit like the others? Will they appear after the flowers and in the same place? Thanks

Ken Dunn on April 12, 2019:

After carefully removing the spines and skin, I make a juice from the pear pulp.

It is very tasty and refreshing. I enjoy it in cocktails with orange juice,

peach schnapps and vodka!

Usually I blend the skinless pulp then strain out the seeds. Usually re-blend the unstrained remains with a little water two or three times to maximize the extract.

I definitely think it worth the effort.

Mary Wickison from Brazil on July 24, 2018:

We have some of these plants growing near our fence. I ate cactus candy when I was younger, but haven't eaten it since.

My Mexican cookbook has recipes. It is about time I picked some and tried some various dishes with it. Interesting article.

Nobear1959 on August 23, 2017:

I bought some of the fruit for the first time at a veg market and was interested in getting info on preparing them. Interesting info. Thanks.

Judith Rizzo from Phoenix ~ The Valley of the Sun on July 24, 2014:

Excellent hub! Thank you for getting the word out about this marvelous plant. I spent many wonderful hours out of the desert harvesting the pads and the fruits with my grandma, many years ago when Phoenix and Valley still had desert.

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on July 16, 2013:

Hi tastiger,

Definitely give them a try, you will be pleasantly surprised! We don't get them here but we have them growing in Puglia so what a bonus that is although my partner is not a fan of cacti in general so will have to surprise him with this fruit and then tell him what it is, it may sway him! Cheers for comment, much appreciate your interest!

tastiger04 on July 16, 2013:

The prickly pear is native to the area I live in yet I have never ate one, or even tried to prepare one! I see them in the grocery store, maybe I ought to try it out :)

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on May 14, 2013:

Hi azrestoexp,

Lovely to receive your comments again, so good to know you are among the prickly pear so have no excuse now! Enjoy going pear hunting and i am sure you will be glad you did! Appreciate you stopping by!!

Arizona's Restoration Experts, LLC on May 14, 2013:

What a WONDERFUL hub. So informative. Live in the Arizona desert and there are prickly pear cactus everywhere. Have never given them a try, that will have to change! :O)

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 13, 2013:

Hi torrilynn,

Great to see you again, always a pleasure! many thanks for your lovely comments which are really nice to hear. Appreciate you taking time to vote, share and read, cheers!!

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 13, 2013:

Hi Rajan,

Many thanks for your visit and welcome support. The cactus fruit and pad are so nutritious I am surprised you were not familiar with it. Glad you picked up some new information here. Many thanks for your votes and share, appreciate them greatly.

torrilynn on March 13, 2013:

Hi Suzie,

i didn't know that you could actually eat cactus

thanks for the information and for a well written hub

Voted up and shared.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on March 13, 2013:

Suzie, that cactus and its fruits were edible, is news to me. This information was entirely new to me and I learnt a great deal. The jam looks so good. The fruits too look delicious in the photos.

Thanks for sharing such interesting information.

Voted up, useful, interesting and shared.

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 12, 2013:

Hi Sally,

Thanks for your comments on the prickly pear. Hopefully you may get the chance to tackle again on your travels or try it at the supermarket or market, they are delicious!!

Sally Gulbrandsen from Norfolk on March 12, 2013:

Very popular in Africa too - have to say I never had the courage to tackle though prickles when I lived there!!

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 09, 2013:

Hi Sam,

Many thanks for reading and for your comments. The prickly pear are definitely found in Italy, that's for sure so it is cool you ate them there. Hope you get to make the jam for a delicious change. Appreciate your input as always!

Samantha Harris from New York on March 08, 2013:

When I first started reading I couldn't believe that you could eat cacti, but then I realized that I have actually had cactus fruit before when I was abroad in Italy. They called it Fica d'India (or something like that--I never had to spell it haha)--which translates to Indian Fig, as you mentioned in the beginning. It really is super delicious! Totally worth the "danger" of getting pricked haha...

I really want to try that jam!

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 08, 2013:

Hi GTF,

How timely, a cookery program showing the Prickly Pear It was on a cookery show (Australian masterchef) I saw the pad pr stem being cooked for the first time and was fascinated. Hopefully you will be able to get some of this fruit together and try it out! Thanks so much for your input, love hearing this kind of info!

Claudia Mitchell on March 07, 2013:

We were watching a cooking show the other night and one of the ingredients was this prickly pear. My daughter was fascinated and thought it would be fun to try this. I'm definitely showing her this hub.

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 06, 2013:

Hi Amadaun,

Thanks for commenting, the spines are really painful but if you go picking them now just wear good thick gloves to prevent further incidents. Hope you get to enjoy them!

Emily Velenovsky on March 05, 2013:

This is something I always wanted to try when I was a kid! It resulted in a lot of prickle wounds while exploring the cacti around my grandmother's house.

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 04, 2013:

Hi Eddy,

Apologies, I did reply and it seemed to take a wobbler in mid stream so did not get it replied to properly! Thanks so much for your constant support this side of the Irish Sea, great to have you visit as always!

Much appreciate your votes and share here, maybe you will get to try cactus fruit, it is gorgeous!!

Eiddwen from Wales on March 04, 2013:

Mmmm interesting and useful !!!What a great share and I vote up plus share.

Have a wonderful day.

Eddy.

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 04, 2013:

Hi vespa,

How great if you could publish that!! Would love to have that in my collection for Italy as prickly pear is everywhere and easily bought at markets. I have never had the white variety so it's interesting to see in Peru it too is very popular like in Mexico. Thanks so much for your great input here, as always you have a wealth of info I love hearing!

Appreciate your votes and share, Cheers Vespa!

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on March 04, 2013:

It's been a while since I've had nopales. In Peru, the cactus pads are given to cattle once the spines are removed. I could easily get my hands on some, though, and try your recipe. They're very popular in Mexico!

As for the fruit or tuna, I just ate some yesterday (seeds and all). The red tuna is sweeter, as you mention, but in Peru the white is also more popular. I think it's because they have a crisper texture than the red. I actually did prepare a hub about prickly pear syrup, but never published it. You've inspired me--I'll have to think about reworking and publishing it. Another great Hub. Voted up and shared!

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 04, 2013:

Hi Gail,

Lovely to have you here! Yes, it is amazing these plants often the cause of pain from the spines is edible. The prickly pear variety is so versatile too with the stem, fruit and flower used. Even the sap in the pads is used in cosmetics. For some this plant grows in abundance around them, what a natural free source of goodies they have! Thanks so much for taking the time and interest to comment, appreciate your votes and shares!

Gail Meyers from Johnson County, Kansas on March 04, 2013:

I had no idea people eat these! I would highly recommend following the suggestion of wearing heavy gloves. For some reason I grabbed one of these babies in some store when I was a young kid. To this day, I cringe when I see a cactus even though they are beautiful. I would never have thought of the fruit of a cactus being edible cactus fruit (in that sense of the word). Voted up and shared.

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 04, 2013:

Hi prasetio,

So grateful to see you here! Glad you enjoyed this and hope you found useful. Many thanks for your warm comments and votes, always a delight to see you Prasetio!!

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on March 04, 2013:

Beautiful and I love this hub very much. The photos you included are the best. Thanks for writing and share with us. Voted up!

Prasetio

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 04, 2013:

Hi iguidenetwork,

Appreciate your visit and comments! You are so right, mother nature truly does deliver some incredible and fascinating things. Cacti are one of those wonders and prickly pear should be more widely introduced to diets. They are so popular in Mexico there is an annual Expo event there with all types of products and foods on show from suppliers and manufacturers, it is extraordinary!! Cheers for the votes, very much appreciated! :-)

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 04, 2013:

Hi lemonkerdz,

Many thanks for stopping by! These would be great for you to try out in Peru! I favor the fruits I have to say as "green beans" are one of the few vegetables I am not a fan of! Having said that, the pads are worth trying out if you have them in abundance and they are easily harvested for you. The fruit in juices and smoothies is great chilled for a cooling drink during hot sunny summer days. Many thanks for commenting and interest here!!

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 04, 2013:

Hi unknown spy,

Cheers for the support here, hope you get to try these wonder plants sometime!

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 04, 2013:

Hi livingsta,

Thanks for having the interest here and for commenting. Hopefully you will find them available to try in your area. The stems and fruit are edible and used in different ways which I find so interesting. Thanks so much for votes, sharing and pin!!

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 04, 2013:

Hi chef!

Cool to see you! Love your story you included. it reminds me how my mum used to sketch and paint out in nature too. A great gift you have. Prickly pear are one of those plants that could sustain you if stuck out in arid or desert areas with no food or water. It is amazing finding all these unusual edibles in the wild that are so useful. Keep on sketching my friend! Appreciate the votes and thumbs up!!

iguidenetwork from Austin, TX on March 04, 2013:

Isn't it amazing at what Mother Nature has given to us? Even a thorny plant gives us food and nourishment, it would be a good alternative to many popularly-marketed vegetables and fruits around. Since cacti are easy to grow because they need little water or care compared to other garden plants, it's really a big blessing.

Voted up useful, aswesome. :)

lemonkerdz from LIMA, PERU on March 04, 2013:

interesting hub, these prickly pears are all over the place at the moment in peru since they are in season. I'm not sure i would do the cooking using the cactus but the jam is a great idea, never thought of that.

Thanks

Life Under Construction from Neverland on March 04, 2013:

great hub! i never tasted a prickly pear cactus recipe before.

livingsta from United Kingdom on March 04, 2013:

Wow, never knew these were edible. I am a cactus lover too. Had a few varieties in my garden in India. I haven't seen these in the markets either, for sale as edible food. Thank you for sharing this hub.

Voted up, pinning and sharing!

Andrew Spacey from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on March 04, 2013:

What a detailed and generous hub, full of great information. When I lived up a mountain in Andalucia prickly pear were everywhere. Being a dreamer I only ever sketched and painted them and watched the lizards run through the spikey pads. A neighbour down the track though was more practical and one year made loads of prickly pear jam - chumbo jam!! It was lovely. I still have my sketches!

I'll vote for this interesting hub.

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 03, 2013:

Hi Anamika,

Lovely to have you visit here! Yes, prickly pear cactus is edible and very versatile. Hope you get to try it out now! Thanks so much for the votes!!

Anamika S Jain from Mumbai - Maharashtra, India on March 03, 2013:

Before seeing this Hub, I had no idea that Cactus is an edible plant. Good Hub, voted up!