By Sheryl Kleinschmidt, Somervell County Master Gardener
It is this writer’s opinion that all plants were put on earth for a reason, if only to teach us a lesson. I think that the prickly pear cactus falls into this category to some degree. In the 1930’s, the Australians learned a valuable lesson regarding the cultivation of this cacti in a non-native environment. The cacti took over and became a national hazard until a natural enemy to the cactus was discovered and released.
In Central America, Mexico, and the Southwestern United States, where the prickly pear cactus grows naturally, indigenous populations have learned to utilize it efficiently. Over centuries, the prickly pear cactus became a good source of nutrition (both the pads and the pears), was used medicinally, became food for livestock, dyed cloth, and was grown in thickets as fencing to outline property and keep out intruders.
The prickly pear cactus is extremely versatile and is now found worldwide because it tolerates a wide range of temperatures, moisture-levels, and altitudes. In good conditions, the cactus can reach heights of about seven feet. Its fleshy pads have given the most common culinary species, the Indian Fig Opuntia, the common name of Paddle Cactus.
The pads of the cactus are a storage tank for water, produce flowers, and are the factory where photosynthesis takes place. Spines are found on most species, but all prickly pear cacti have glochids—the tiny hairy barbs that stick in your skin and cause extreme irritation.
When used as a vegetable, the pads are considered best when small and tender. After removing the thorns and glochids (hints given later), pads can be cut into strips and sautéed in a pan with olive oil and other vegetables such as onions, mushrooms and peppers. Raw nopal makes a good addition to fresh salads while fried nopal makes a terrific appetizer.
Prickly pear fruit, also called tunas, grow from one flower and range from very light yellow to bright orange and magenta. The pears ripen from September to November and sweeten with age. Once picked, they only keep a week and must be used quickly. The most common uses of the pears are for making wine, juice and jelly.
Harvesting pads and pears must be done with great care to avoid a handful of glochids. Wear heavy gloves and use tongs and a knife to cut both fruit and pads from the main plant. Glochids can be removed in several ways: scrape them off with a blunt knife, burn them off over an open flame, pressure wash, or roll them in clean sand. Chilling them in cold water for a few hours makes some of the glochids release as well.
I have only made prickly pear cactus jelly once. It was definitely a learning experience and I DID get some annoying glochids stuck in my hands as a souvenir! However, the jelly was some of the most wonderful I have ever made and knowing that it came from a native Texas plant made it all the more special. The tunas are ripe now, so why not try it yourself?
TEXAS PRICKLY PEAR JELLY
Fruit Preparation: Gather ripe tunas (when very dark) with tongs. A small bucket-full should be enough. Remove thorns/glochids. Wearing rubber gloves, cut tunas in half and put in a large pot with just a little water in the bottom. Cover and simmer until soft enough to mash. Simmer, uncovered, another 5-10 minutes. When cool, squeeze through cheesecloth or a jelly bag.
Mix 5 cups of cactus juice, the juice of 2 lemons, 7.5 cups of sugar and a box of Sure Jell. Follow the directions on the Sure Jell box. Yield is 9.5 pints.