I know we’ve discussed this and other prickly pears on this forum at length, but I just wanted to give a little love for what I think is an underrated fruit. Overall, I think they’re more of a novelty than a serious crop, but there are some good reasons to consider them.
First, let’s consider the plant. There are multiple prickly pears native to the East, but I’m referring to the Northeastern-most species, Opuntia humifusa. It’s very ornamental, and hardy to at least zone 5, possibly 4. So long as you can give it decent drainage and full sun, it doesn’t ask for much more. The green pads look great once they get growing in the spring, and it has lovely yellow flowers in June. Each flower only blooms for a few days, but there are a lot of them. Those flowers turn into gorgeous red fruits in early fall. The pads on this species are always spineless (well, no big spines–see more below about glochids). And, they’re super easy to propagate. In late spring or early summer, take a pad and put it on or stuck slightly into the ground where you want it. Within a few weeks, it will have put down roots. You can also grill the young pads (be sure to remove the tiny spines) and use them in your new favorite taco recipe.
Speaking of the fruits, that’s where it gets really exciting. Each one is about the size of a fat thumb and is edible. Overall, I’d say it’s a fig like experience, but it puts up more resistance. The first line of defense are little tiny spines called glochids, which are concentrated in the dots. They don’t look like much, but they will get lodged in your skin and be really itchy if you get a lot of them. So pick with tongs or very carefully placed fingers. Then, you need to scrape them off; the back of a knife works well. Scrape every little dot, including the rim of the blossom end. Be sure to scrape the base, too, as there is sometimes a concentration there. I also like to rinse the fruit for good measure. I haven’t eaten any glochids, but I don’t imagine it would be pleasant to get a mouthful of them.
Once your fruit is clean, you can eat the whole thing, but I prefer to eat the middle and the skin separately. The middle is tangy, sort of a punchy berry-kiwi-melon flavor. It’s much more intense than store-bought prickly pears. The downside is there’s not much pulp, and the seeds are very stony. The stony seeds are the other area where it really differs from a figgy experience, and the part that keeps this from being more than a novelty IMO. The trick is to chew gently and savor the flavor before swallowing. Next, you can eat the skin. The skin is much subtler, but also tasty. I would say sort of watermelon-berry, not tart, mildly sweet. It has a soft texture with a tiny bit of snap from the outermost skin. The skin has a slight sliminess to it, but it’s really a feature not a bug. Trust me. If you eat the skin and pulp together, you get the advantage of more soft stuff to hard stuff, but I find the flavors of the skin and pulp are best appreciated separately, as they sort of mute the best aspects of each other. Both parts will vary in quality depending on how ripe it is, but I think the skin is more sensitive to being picked ripe enough. The taste is fine if underripe, just not nearly as exciting.
Edit: Since I originally wrote this, I had the opportunity to sample fruits from Barr’s Dwarf. While the fruits are smaller, the fleshy skin had the same punchy flavor as the pulp, which made for a different eating experience. I think these are well suited to eating whole. Clearly, there’s room for exploration and maybe even breeding in hardy prickly pears. Maybe we’ll even be able to get it beyond a novelty!
Another fun thing you can do is scrape the pulp from a few fruits into a glass of water, stir it up, and let it sit. After a while, it makes a viscous drink (trust me, it’s good) kind of like aloe vera drink. It only takes a little pulp, so you don’t get a ton of flavor (think LaCroix levels of flavor), but I think it’s pretty darn good.