Prickly pear cactus has been a staple of the Mexican and Central American diet for thousands of years. In parts of the U.S. it has been gaining popularity as an exotic, gourmet and healthy addition to one’s diet. They grow wild throughout the American southwest, down to South America and up to Canada. The ones you may find at a local store or farmers market will surely originate from a commercial nopal farm.
- The prickly pear plant has three different edible sections:
The pad (or Nopal), which can be treated like a vegetable. It has a soft but crunchy texture that also becomes a bit sticky (not unlike okra) when cooked. Edible cactus tastes similar to a slightly tart green bean, asparagus, or green pepper. Cactus pads contain beta carotene, iron, some B vitamins, and are good sources of both vitamin C and calcium.
- The flower petals, which can be added to salads.
- The pear (tuna) which is a fruit that is 2 to 4 inches long and shaped like an avocado. Its skin is coarse and thick, not unlike an avocados and it ranges in color from yellow or orange to magenta or red. Tubercles with small prickly spines can be found on the prickly pear’s skin. This fruit’s flesh, which ranges in color also from yellow to dark red, is sweet and juicy with crunchy seeds throughout. The prickly pear can be diced like pineapple and used as a topping on yogurt or cereal or blended into a smoothie.
Availability, Selection, and Storage
Edible cactus is available year-round with a peak in the mid-spring and the best season from early spring through late fall. When buying edible cactus, choose small, firm, pale green cacti with no wrinkling. Be sure to pick cacti that are not limp or dry. Very small paddles may require more cleaning because their larger proportion of prickers and eyes. Edible cactus can be refrigerated for more than a week if wrapped tightly in plastic.