Opuntia – Also, know as nopal
Everyone in West Texas is familiar with our plant of the week – prickly pear. It is ubiquitous on rangeland, along roadways and even in landscapes. Once it gets a foothold, it seems to thrive anywhere and is almost impossible to eradicate. It can grow large 16 – 23 feet in circumference and more than 9 feet tall. What you learn early about prickly pear is the source of the prickly part of the name.
The large fleshy pads have a combination of large spines surrounded at the base by a cluster of small hairlike prickles. Both detach easily from the plant but not so easily from clothing or skin.
Showy and Productive
Each spring, the plants will bloom producing large, showy yellow flowers that produce fruit , which may be white, yellow, or a reddish-purple. The fruit, officially called tuna, is the source of the pear part of the prickly pear name. Ranchers consider the prickly pear a nuisance at best as it crowds out forage grasses.
Cultivation and Propagation
Prickly pear is easy to cultivate in West Texas. The easiest way to start a new plant is with a small leaf taken from a healthy plant. Lay the pad on a bed of potting soil formulated for succulents. The best mix, in my opinion, is a combination of three parts light potting soil, two parts coarse horticultural sand, and 1 part perlite or vermiculite. If you can’t find horticultural sand, green sand will work as will decomposed granite. The secret is getting a potting mix that is light, sandier than most potting mixes, and that drains rapidly.
Less is More
The main mistake I see people make is to try and give the prickly pear too much love and care. Remember that these are desert plants acclimated to harsh dry climates. Overwatering is the most common mistake. Prickly pears crave sunlight. They need full sun for much of the day.
Keep the cutting in a pot for at least a year before you transplant to your landscape. Catus don’t have much of a root structure, so take care when you transplant. Depending on the temperatures, you prickly pear may not need watering regularly for as long as 14 days. If the weather is extremely hot, once a week is sufficient. We had a prickly pear near out mailbox for several years that never got watered, and it thrived. These are tough plants.
We have to add a warning. These are not good plants for high traffic areas, areas frequented by children or pets, or where they can be inadvertently encountered. The spines are merciless and removing them can be traumatic.
They do, however, make an excellent addition to landscapes where a measure of security is required. A back fence line or beneath windows that pose a security problem can be perfect places to have a nice thick prickly pear. They will certainly discourage anyone from using that location as an avenue to approach.
A True Native
Prickly pear has the distinction of being a true native plant. While they have since spread across the world, they originally were only found in the Americas. The large fleshy pads are edible, as are the fruits and the flowers. Farmers cultivate nopales in Mexico and Central America as cash crops for sale in local markets. These spiny plants have been a part of the diet in these areas for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Preparing the pads for cooking and eating is a bit of an art but, once understood, can be done quite easily. The fruits also feature small fine sharp spines and require a bit of care to harvest and prepare them.
The pads, called nopales, are used in a wide variety of ways from being grilled to pickled. Nutritionally, the pads are a source of Vitamin A and Vitamin C, Calcium, and Vitamin K. They are low in carbohydrates and sugars. Also, the fruits contain flavonoids kaempferol and quercetin, both known to be antioxidants and provide anti-inflammatory properties.
In the Market
There are several videos and instructions sets on the internet, showing easy ways to prepare nopales. However, in West Texas, nopales are often available, already dethorned and ready to cook, in the supermarket vegetable area. The fruits are not readily available.
Become a Forager
If you want to harvest your own, you should have no problem finding someone willing to allow you access to a few plants. Caution should be employed to make sure that the cacti have not been sprayed with any noxious or toxic herbicides or pesticides, a common practice to try and control them on rangelands.
A pair of thick cuffed leather gloves are your best bet. The best pads are the smaller young pads that emerge in the spring. They tend to be more succulent and tender than the more mature pads. The younger pads tend to be thinner than the more mature pads, which get progressively thicker as they age.
You might also try using long tongs. I prefer to use both gloves and tongs. Snap the pads off cleanly at the base of the pad. Cutting does less damage to the plant and causes less stress, but sometimes getting to the base of the pad can be a challenge.
Preparing the Pads
Use a vegetable peeler or a knife to remove the spines. The large thorns are not so much of a problem as the small hairlike spines. Be diligent as you scrape or cut the spines from the pads. Wear your gloves until you are sure that all the spines are removed and rinsed away. Your nopales are now ready to cook or eat. They can be enjoyed raw, grilled, fried, sautéed, or pickled.
If you choose to cook your nopales by boiling them, you will soon notice that the sap thickens and become almost gelatinous. Drain off the sap and water, replace it with freshwater and continue cooking. Large thick pads may require more than one drain.
Wash the boiled nopales with cold water and serve as a salad with tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and jalapenos. Season to taste with vinegar, salt, and lime juice.
Grilling the nopales easy. Coat the pads with your favorite spice mix and toss them on the grill. They are ready to eat when they are tender and begin to brown. Squeeze a bit of lime juice and pour some olive oil or avocado oil on them and serve as a side dish with your steak or seafood.
Nopales can be added to soups and stews or even eaten alone with just a dash of salt and pepper.
My favorite recipe is to create “nopalitos en salsa verde” or green salsa and nopales. Cut the nopales into strips and boil them as above. Create a sauce of tomatillos, onion, garlic, cilantro, and jalapeno chiles. Puree’ the ingredients in a blender, bring the pureed mixture to a boil, and simmer to thicken it slightly. Grab a bag of corn chips and get ready for a treat
Another great treat is the fruits. The deep purple prickly pear fruits are considered the sweetest, but all of them are delicious. Again, your best tools are a pair of thick leather gloves and a pair of long tongs. The best ones to choose are the fruit that are bright purple just before they start to wrinkle.
Beware the Pear
There are several ways to remove the fine spines on the fruit. You can peel them carefully under running water. An alternative is to put them in a plastic colander and, under running water, swirl them in the colander gently to avoid bruising. Washing in this way will remove the fine spines from the fruit. You must still peel them, but it is easier with[DH1] out having to wear the heavy gloves. Slice off the ends of the pear. These parts get tough and are best tossed. Cut lengthwise lone the fruit from top to bottom to make wedges of the fruit. The seeds are quite hard. You can eat them safely or spit them out. You can trim the seeds away as well. The flesh of the fruit can be used just like any other fruit to make jams, jellies, sorbets, cobblers, and pies.
Garnish with Native Style
The flowers of the prickly pear are also edible and make a great garnish for salads or plated presentations. Prick them fresh, rinse under cold water and refrigerate until ready to use. They don’t last too long so they should be as fresh as possible.
If you want a true native desert plant in your landscape, the prickly pear, despite its fearsome reputation, can be a beautiful addition. It’s showy flowers, and fruit brings a different sort of color and texture to your landscape during the year. They are low maintenance easy plants to cultivate and require little care. They have few natural pests and are disease resistant. Just use a little common sense and care with your placement.
Links and Resources
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