Prickly Pear Cactus-Culture, Uses, and Fruit Peeling Etiquette


Since Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia) are a native plant, we don't ever think about giving them some tender loving care. I see so many dried up stressed out and fungus ridden plants every day. This is usually because they have been put in a hot dry place, never watered, and never fed. If you would like beautiful healthy plants, here are a few suggestions. Prickly Pear, like many plants, will tolerate a variety of soils and conditions. A sunny, well-drained sandy loam will help them grow best. Protection from cold winter winds, will help them stay healthy so they have a jump start in the spring.


Few of us ever think about fertilizer when it comes to prickly pear. During their growing period, spring through fall, they benefit from applications of a balanced fertilizer and can use about as much water as any of your other cultivated plants... provided they have excellent drainage. For pad production use a high-nitrogen fertilizer and for flowers and fruit production use a no-nitrogen fertilizer (0-10-0) applied once a month. Continue this fertilizer even through the winter. We have intense summer sun, so it is best to arrange the pads so the skinny side points north and south. The sun will pass the narrow side and the pads won't get sunburned.


Did you know that you can use the juice from the pad the same way you can use Aloe vera? Cut a piece from the plant, crush it, and squeeze the juice onto a wound or bruise. If you spread the juice on water, such as a non-circulating pond, the juice will smother mosquito larvae and is said to last for up to a year. I don't know what it would do to any fish in the pond though. You can boil or fry the young pads like eggplant or zucchini, pickle it like okra (that's the only way I will eat okra!), cut them up in slivers and cook them like green beans. Add a little onion and garlic for flavor. You can even dry the fruit and make them into a flour and bake into sweet cakes. Of course we all think of the other use... prickly pear jam! But have you ever thought of using the fruit for cactus candy, syrup, food coloring, or just eating them with a little lemon juice... which brings me to my last subject - fruit peeling etiquette. NEVER, NEVER touch the fruit directly with your fingers. It can cause you to get spines on your tongue if they get mixed with the fruit. So here is what you do. Rub the fruit with heavy gloves on or roll them in sand. If this does not appeal to you, stick them under a broiler for a minute and singe the little devils off. Put down some newspaper covered with paper towels. Stick a fork into the fruit to keep it from rolling around on you. Cut off both ends and make a slit down the middle from end to end. Don't make the slit too deep, just through the skin to the flesh. Now the tricky part. With fork in place for an anchor, start to peel away the skin with your knife. Just slip it in between the skin and flesh and start pulling downward. Your first few attempts may result in a bunch of messy pieces, but practice makes perfect. You're not done yet... while still on the fork, run the fruit under water, to make sure it is free of any spines. Now pop it in your mouth, and enjoy!

Linda Jenkins-Wensel
October, 1998