*Please note that you may need a permit to harvest native plants.
If you've ever traveled through the American Southwest, you've likely seen them: The majestic prickly pear cactus, also known as nopal. Native only to the Americas, they're superabundant in Mexico and the Southwestern United States. Still, they can be found in some unexpected places. Connecticut, I'm looking at you!
Some species can grow up to twenty-three feet tall, with a diameter of nearly ten feet. They're known to live twenty years or more. Atop the spiny, paddle-like stems of the cactus, the prickly pear fruit sits regally. The young fruit, technically known as a berry, is green in color. It blooms lavishly with delicate flowers in the springtime. The petals vary in color and eventually wilt away to reveal the maturing fruit. They typically reach peak ripeness on the hottest and most arid days of summer. Here in the Southwest, you're most likely to see red to purple flesh with deep purple pulp.
Almost every part of the prickly pear has been historically used for food, medicine, and art. If you see one of these stunning succulents growing from the hillside be cautious. There's a reason they call them prickly. When gathering, always use a thick pair of gloves, preferably leather, and tongs for handling. This avoids the spines and small but mighty bristles called glochids. Know what to look for. Young stems have the best flavor and are the least thorny. These appear bright green and can be found in the springtime. Be sure to use a paring knife to cut the stem, leaving an inch or so behind so that it can regenerate. The flowers are edible as well. Once picked, the fruit no longer ripens, so be sure to choose those that are deep in color, with a firm but gentle give. Twist the fruit from the stem to avoid breakage, and collect it in a large plastic container. July and August are the best months to harvest this part of the plant.
To prepare, have your thick gloves, as well as some rubber gloves handy. Rubber gloves will help you avoid staining your skin with fruit juice. With a gloved hand, you can peel the stems and fruit with a potato peeler, being careful to wipe between each stroke. You can also burn off the glochids using a flame, or peel them off using duct tape. Pay close attention to detail so that the spines are all removed and the glochids don't contaminate the finished product. I like to give mine a thorough rinse when all is said and done.
You might be wondering what kinds of dishes can be prepared with this succulent. In Mexico and the Southwestern United States, nopales are a popular ingredient, made by slicing or dicing the stems and then grilling or sautÃ©ing. Nopales are enjoyed by many for their meaty texture. They're a common ingredient in tacos, salads, and sides. The prickly pear fruit is absurdly versatile and can be eaten on its own or found in many candies, desserts, and beverages. It can be reduced into a syrup to flavor everything from teas to cocktails. Pressing the juice is a great option that will take your lemonade to the next level. The fruit can be used to make smoothies, jams, and jellies, or blended and frozen into ice cubes. Its seeds can even be ground into flour! Don't feel like harvesting your own? Stop into the Pickle Barrel Trading Post to find a selection of unique prickly pear treats!