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Though cacti do occasionally appear on menus, it is usually presented as nopales (the leaf or pad) or prickly pear (the fruit). Luckily for those of us keen to chow down on some cactus, nopales and prickly pears come from the same plant: the Opuntia cactus.

Opuntia is a genus of cacti that grow in a series of pads, one springing forth from another, ultimately creating a rather sprawling, large, segmented plant with spikes. Like all cacti, Opuntia cacti are native to the Americas and have been spread over the globe by humans.

In addition to food, Opuntia cacti have been used for folk medicine, dye production (derived from small insects that live on the plant, i.e., not vegan-friendly), biofuel, bioplastic, and vegan “leather.” They have also been a cultural symbol in several countries, especially Mexico.

Fortunately, prickly pear cacti are the most cold-tolerant of all lowland cacti, and they have been found growing as far north as Canada. In other words, growing one at home is possible wherever in the US—save maybe Alaska—you live.

Cultivating the Prickly Pear Plant

Source: Munchies/YouTube

The most common way to cultivate a prickly pear plant is to take a cutting from an established cactus. A cutting from a prickly pear is simply one of the pads, ideally, one that is at least six months old. Once cut from the mother plant, the cactus pad should be stood on end and given a couple of weeks to form a scab over its wound, much the same as with a seed potato. This protects the young plant from infection.

After the wound has scabbed, the pad can be planted in a pot or the ground, ideally with a half-and-half mixture of sand and soil. The cut end should be planted about an inch in the ground, and the pad can be stabilized with a couple of stones until it sets its roots. Because it’s a cactus, it doesn’t really need watering. About once a month will do if it is kept inside.

There are also seeds found in the prickly pear of Opuntia cacti, and these can be used to cultivate new plants. However, they will require three or four years to flower and bear fruit. Plantings from pads can potentially fruit within the first year.

Caring for a Prickly Pear Cactus

Source: Colorful Gardener/YouTube

Where prickly pear cacti thrive, they are sometimes considered a noxious weed. They multiply very easily, basically rooting a new plant every time a paddle lowers to the ground. In this way, they often grow in huge colonies. That said, there are conditions in which a prickly pear will grow better. Being cactus, they like dry climates; however, they can endure wetter locations when the drainage is very good.

In a warm climate with mild winters, they will happily grow outside. Some, such as the Opuntia humifusa (Eastern prickly pear cactus), have a natural antifreeze in their water-laden leaves to help them withstand freezing temperatures. This opuntia can grow into USDA Zone 4. In especially cold or especially wet climates, prickly pear cacti can be indoor pot plants. They’ll need a sunny spot and a bit wetter every month or so. They’ll also need a fairly large pot, as the plants can get rather large.

Dealing with Nopales and Prickly Pears

Source: Green Lady’s Succulent Garden Life/YouTube

While genuinely delicious and worth a little trouble, harvesting nopales (pads) and prickly pear fruits require patience and caution. After all, they are part of a spiky cactus plant. A sturdy work glove (or welding glove) and a sharp knife will do the trick. Some people prefer tongs to gloves.

Once the pad or pear has been cut from the plant, the next obstacle is removing the spikes or glochids from the fruit. The glochids on the fruits can be removed with a small flame or by washing them under the tap in a colander and shaking them vigorously. For nopales, it’s as simple as holding them with tongs and using a sharp knife to remove the outside edges, then filet the out layer away, with special attention to the eyes. It’s worth the few moments it takes to give them one more rinse and another once-over before eating them.

Eating Nopales and Prickly Pears

Source:Bre Outdoors/YouTube

Essentially, nopales are like a vegetable. They can be eaten raw but more often are grilled, steamed, or fried. They have a good crunch and a bit of sliminess, a la okra. Prickly pears are fruity, and they are enjoyed as whole fruit, juice, jam, or syrup.

This is an easy edible plant to grow for many of us, and that means it’s perfect for the grow-your-own food scene.

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