Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa) is surprisingly an incredible edible food.
You may even have it growing on your property, but may have not realized all of its virtues as a food and medicine. In this article I’ll be discussing some of the aspects of this special cactus, which is the only native cactus of the northeastern United States, and grows abundantly throughout the southwest.
You actually can consume the pads, flower pedals, and also fruits, but all of them, minus the flowers, need processing of some sort. There are a few techniques that should first be understood about this plant as a food source.
Prickly Pear as an Edible Food:
The pads of the prickly pear are known in Spanish as nopales, and I often find them in international cuisine market where they are fully cleaned and prepared for eating. In the wild, they are very delicious, but also are full of glochids, which are these little minute hairs, that need to be cleaned off. The glochids can get into the skin or lips, or even worse – on the tongue, and are almost impossible to get out. It is guaranteed that as you try to get them out of your skin, you will painfully discover more. The fruit also has many rock hard seeds which you have to spit out. Native people ground up the seeds using a mortar and pestle to consume them; they are edible once ground. The flower petals of the Prickly Pear make a great and delicate food, something quite substantial for a flower. They also have a slimy consistency and are typically filling.)
Medicinal and Nutritional Aspects:
The whole plant is mucilaginous, which is, just as the word “mucous” implies – a slimy substance. At first, one might be offset by that quality, however an herbalist learns to deeply value this asset, necessary to nourish the healthy gut flora, but is a textural sensation almost entirely missing from our modern diet. The lack of mucilage, in the American diet, may actually be linked to constipation and slow moving elimination, which of course leads to the bodies toxification. Mucilage is able to coat the digestive tract, and as its nature suggests, it is cooling and soothing. From a holistic perspective, that means that it would be incredibly helpful in the case of any burn, inflammation of any kind, or any hot cellular processes such as ulcers. This also means that if you understand its principle action, you can stretch your imagination to when the need arises.
Key aspects of healing: Applied topically, this entails soothing for sunburn, having made it a great medicinal plant for desert or coastal tribes.
Applied internally, this offers calming, cooling, soothing, and lubrication to the entire body processes.
Probably the most efficient way of harvesting the pads in the wild is to use 2 sticks as a tong, or fashion a chop stick and cut a pad off at its base.. DO NOT lay your hands into one of these things! [It is not the visible thorns that will get you, it is the near-invisible glochids.] From there you can actually roast it on coals to burn off the glochids and cook the cactus pad. Once this is done, you can cut the outside skin off and eat the inside flesh, which is much better when softened by cooking than it is raw, although you can eat it raw if need.
The fruits, also known as tunas are delicious to eat raw, although they also require careful removal of the glochids, or a very careful skin-peeling process. In a primitive or survival situation, if you don’t have a fire or the ability to make one, this takes creative thinking – think sandpaper, whether that’s a rock, or your knife edge. I highly recommend fashioning yourself some crude forest chopsticks to handle these, or wear very thick gloves if you have them. The fruits as well are sometimes sold in the store with the glochids removed. But, nothing is like foraging your own wild food!
Heres a video to help you further discern edible prickly pear cactus:
Dan De Lion
Further Suggested Reading: