Prickly Pear – Opuntia ficus-indica
Edible cactus, thornless (smooth)
Your opuntia cactus will grow to a height of up to 16 feet, with or without your help. Of course, you can keep it smaller by harvesting the pads or even just by pruning it, if you choose not to use the pads.
The pads are eaten as a vegetable. Very small pads can be broken from the parent and eaten raw and unpeeled. They are a good thirst-quencher when you are working outside in the heat. The flavor is faintly like cucumber, only a little sweeter.
Larger Prickly Pear pads can be cut into strips and then added to stir-fries. No need to peel them unless they are very tough. I have added them to sauted onions and peppers and they absorb the flavors of the other veggies. Once cooked, they look like pale peppers and taste like them.
Prickly Pear pads tend to absorb the flavors of whatever they are cooked with. They have very little flavor of their own.
Especially prized are the large sweet fruits called ‘tuna’. The flowers of the cactus may be white, yellow or red. They first appear in early May through the early summer and the fruits ripen from August through October.
Eat the fruit raw after peeling away the thick outer skin. Chill in the fridge for a few hours before eating. They are said to have a taste similar to a juicy, extra sweet watermelon. The flesh contains many tiny hard seeds that are usually swallowed, but if you have gastrointestinal problems (diverticulitis, colitis, Crohn’s, etc.), with seeds, don’t swallow them.
Jams and jellies are made from the fruits, which resemble strawberries and figs in color and flavor.
Prickly Pear cactus are quite easy to grow. Drop a pad on the ground, making sure it has good contact with the soil. Leave it alone and it will soon send out roots and begin multiplying.
Prickly pear is happy growing in zones 8 through 11. It does not tolerate salt, however, if you live near the ocean or Gulf.
Full sun; good drainage as for any cactus