Prickly Pear is the common name given to a whole range of cacti in the Opuntia family.
They are characterised by their flat, fleshy leaves (actually they’re modified stems built for storing water, and they’re known as ‘pads’), bright flowers, oval or pear-shaped fruits, and – of course – their prickles.
Originating in the Americas, these cacti have been used as a food source around the world for a long time: their sweet, fleshy seed-filled fruit is used to make preserves, vinegars, cordials and wine; and the young, supple (yet spiny) pads are edible both raw and cooked, often featuring raw in salsas & salads, BBQd as a meat alternative in tacos, or used like okra to thicken stews. You can also eat the flowers!
There are several species in the Opuntia genus, and their fruits & flowers come in many different colours, ranging through green, white, yellow, orange, red, and purple. Typically they flower in spring, and set fruit by late summer. New growth sees young, supple pads form in late winter and spring.
Opuntia are incredibly invasive species, found thriving in arid and semi-arid environments. Like other cacti, the pads are adapted stems, which allow the plant to store large amounts of water and thus survive long periods of drought. Their ability to produce both sexually (via pollination & seed dispersal) and asexually (via cloning from fallen pads striking root) means they can quickly get out of control.
Their fierce spines and aggressively irritating glochids (hair-like, barbed spines that stick in skin for days) are a cause of injury and infection in animals, which makes them a serious problem if allowed to spread in livestock areas.
For these reasons, Opuntia species are classified as restricted and/or prohibited invasive species by the Australian Biosecurity Act, and by law, everyone has a general biosecurity obligation (GBO) to take all reasonable and practical steps to minimise the risk of these cacti spreading.
Eradication programs make use of fire, herbicides and biological controls to manage invasive growth. Interestingly, some of the bio controls used are cochineal scale insects, which are the insects used to make natural red cochineal dye!
Legal issues of foraging prickly pear
As a forager, Opuntia’s invasive status means you need to be aware of your local laws (in some states, any sighting must be reported to biosecurity agencies within 24hrs, and you can be fined heavily for harvesting, selling or growing Opuntia plants) before you interact with any plant you find in the wild.
If it is permitted to forage Opuntia in your region, your GBO means you must be careful not to carelessly break off and spread pads or seeds from the parent plant. If you are foraging fruit to eat in the field, ensure that all scraps are carefully placed back under the centre of the parent plant. This is because every fleshy pad, fruit and even fruit-skin has the capacity to asexually reproduce by setting down roots and growing new plants where they land.
Harvesting prickly pears
Are they ripe?
First, it’s worth noting that prickly pear fruit comes in a variety of colours: red, orange, purple, yellow. It’s also worth noting that the fruit can be ready to eat even before the outer skin has turned from green to their final colour.
Given how much cockatoos and lorikeets love the sweet seedy fruits, you’ll often find that fruits are picked hollow by birds the moment they start to colour up, so knowing the signs of early ripening means you may just beat the squawking parrots to a harvest.
Look for fruits that are large, plump and rounded, then look below each spine: a fruit that has begun ripening will have faded from green towards yellow or red in the area under the base of each spiny cluster. It’s a bit like the reverse of having dark circles under your eyes 😀
The pictures below show a ripe fruit amongst many unripe ones; a plump ripe fruit with beginning colour change; and a newly-ripened fruit that was eaten by birds.
Picking the fruit
There are a few ways to harvest prickly pear fruit. If you’re just after one fruit to snack on, you can probably find a low-growing ripe fruit and verrrry carefully grip the fruit in between the spines and glochids and cutting it off the pad with a knife.
If you’re picking a few to take home in a bucket (avoid using bags, as the glochids will break off inside and mean your bag will be permanently be infused with the irritating prickles), and the plant is still quite small with lots of fruit in reach, using tongs to twist fruits off the pads is easy enough.
If the plant is more established and the fruit is up high, you could investigate using a fruit picker. These are available to purchase online, but the best DIY picker I ever saw was the one an old Sicilian neighbour had made.
It consisted of an empty tin can strapped firmly onto a long wooden pole. The opening of the can was pointing down, back along the pole, and he used the picker by reaching up, sliding the can over a fruit, and then giving it a deft twist to break it off the pad. He would place the fruits on a paver, brush them firmly with an old broom (which was reserved for the purpose – using it inside would result in prickles underfoot, which is definitely undesirable), and then drop them into a bucket of fresh water overnight. The spines and glochids that broke off during the brushing would sink to the bottom of the bucket, leaving smooth, prickle-free fruit ready for use.
If it’s nopales you’re after, visit the plant towards the end of winter. Look for bright green, thin, supple pads that have more densely packed spines. Carefully grip these using tongs and cut them from the previous year’s pad with a sharp knife.
Preparing & using prickly pear
When it comes to peeling and using the fruits, there are also a couple different ways to tackle prickly pears, the first is to cut them in half lengthwise and scoop out the seedy flesh with a spoon.
The second is to slice the two pointy ends off, then cut a slit along the skin along one side, and then basically unroll the flesh from its skin ‘blanket’.
Once you’ve got the flesh out, you can do all sorts of tasty things with it. Jam, jelly, chutney, syrup, juice, wine, vinegar, kombucha, icy-poles, gummies, and more besides. There are also a stack of tasty dishes you can make with tender young pads as well. We’ve got a whole range of recipes saved here for you to check out (for both nopales and fruit).
Next time you see a prickly pear plant, make a mental note to get some picking gear together and come back when it’s full of fruit so you can have a taste of these dangerous yet delicious cacti!
If you’re interested in wild food, you may be interested in some of these posts: