Prickly Pear Cactus
by Sonoma County Master Gardener Stephanie Wrightson
Driving through the neighborhood I saw – rising above a fence – gorgeous reddish-orange flowers on top of giant cactus pads. This stunning display was Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia spp.). Why am I writing about cactus on a food gardening page? Because Prickly Pear Cactus is a perfect addition to an edible landscape. The fleshy pads (“nopales”) of this plant (including the fruits that follow flowering called “tunas”) can be eaten raw or cooked, adding green bean-like flavor to soups, stews, salads and other meat and egg dishes. It even can be used in marmalades or candied.
Nearly all cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti. What makes the cactus (Cactaceae) family unique from other succulents are areoles – small, round, cushion like structures from which hair, spines, branches, fruits and/or flowers grow. As Master Gardeners in Sonoma County, we extoll the value of succulents as drought-resistant landscape plants. Generally, we talk about the cute little rockery varieties. And we like the statement a large Aloe or Agave can make in the back-forty. But, unfortunately, we give short shrift to cacti.
Depending on your county microclimate, your willingness to provide protection to a new plant and the chance that our warmer late winter/early spring weather will continue, Prickly Pear cacti can be started soon as the soil begins to warm and the threat of freezing weather subsides. Starts are available from many nurseries or, if your neighbor allows cutting a pad at least six-months old, you can propagate your own plant. Give it a week to callous after cutting. Set the pad upright in an equal mix of soil and sand (or rough pumice) in a sunny area. Use small rocks to keep it upright, and don’t plant it too deep or it will rot. Note that there is a slim and a broad side of the pad. To avoid sunburn, situate the broad side east and west. Don’t water it at this point. The moisture in the pad suffices. Irrigate after a month or so—after roots form. The soil should dry out completely between waterings.
Mature Prickly Pear cacti are fairly hardy. If harvesting the pads, periodically add a high-nitrogen supplement (following manufacturer directions) during the spring to fall growing period. To, instead, encourage the tunas, use a 0-10-10 product. In studies, the spiny versions appear to be more pest resistant than the spineless varieties—although there are few pests of which to be concerned. When temps drop below 25 degrees, provide winter protection (another reason to select a protected, sunny area of the garden—e.g., against a south-facing wall—when planting your start).
Once established and, if robust, you can harvest from the nopales up to six times a year during the growing period. Select smaller, young, bright green, firm pads. These are more tender and succulent, and have fewer spines. Carefully cut them from their supporting pads. Harvest when acid content is the lowest—from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. If you are growing a spiny variety, first hold it at its base and use a knife to scrape away the spines. To prepare them for cooking or raw consumption, pare away the skin around the areoles (where there is a bump, there likely is a thorn; no need to completely peel them). Cut off the edges and one-half inch of the thick base. Then, cut the pads into strips or dice them (now they are “nopalitos”). If you are harvesting the “tunas,” wait until after the colorful spring/early summer blooms give way to the mature fruits before twisting them off the pads. The fruit ripens based on variety (from between early spring through fall) and should be firm but yield to gentle pressure before harvesting.
Check the Internet for recipes and cooking tips and tricks. What’s in a cup of nopales? Sixty calories, 1 gram of unsaturated fat, 14 grams of carbohydrates and 5 grams of fiber. It also contains 32 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C. For detailed information, see the University of California’s publication, Prickly Pear Cactus Production.