Eastern prickly pear for the fruit

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.

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This is a good report, thanks. I keep hoping mine will improve in fruit size each year, but that hasn’t happened yet. I’m a big fan of the store version of these, so I’d love to be able to grow something similar at home.

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That’s the dream! I have a seedling from store-bought fruit that I hope I can get to flower and fruit in the next few years.

Really, I think it’s the seeds that are the big stumbling block for O humifusa fruits, rather than size. If it had seeds more like a dragonfruit, but a similar volume of pulp filling the middle of the fruit, these would be an amazing fruit even at this small size.

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Prickly pear cactus are a common food in Mexico. They are called nopales and the fruit tuna. My wife is Hispanic and I enjoy the plant as food and ornamental.

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I’ve thought about these for the past several years. I just haven’t pulled the trigger for lack of a reliable source. Any suggestions on a nursery?

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I just keep propagating the plants I took as cuttings from a roadside, so I don’t know about a good source. I think prairie moon sells cuttings of the straight species.

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@collitchboy

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If you pay for shipping I can send a box full of pads. I have 6 or 7 varieties from Cold Hardy Cactus.

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Luther Burbank was able to breed quite a few thornless varieties pretty quickly, I wonder if effort were made for better fruit how long it would take.

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Glad to see the Opuntia subject come up again. The Cactus Man, or ColdHardyCactus.Com has quite a variety, and I’ve browsed the site but haven’t purchased anything yet so can’t give a recommendation. Our Native Opuntia is one of the plants I grew that thrived here in 6B, and one I regret eliminating from my garden years ago to make room for something else at the time. I grew a variety I’d found on a ditch bank that had attractive yellow blooms with red centers, and exceptionally sweet and dark burgundy pulp.

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I’ll take you up on that offer :slight_smile:

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Could be pretty quick, but you need the variation to select from. I can’t claim to have made an exhaustive search, but I’ve never seen a fruit that’s appreciably bigger or smaller than others within the species. I suspect there must be some out there, but it would likely be at least several generations of breeding the largest-fruited specimens together before you get notable improvement. The other thing I’ve noticed, is that when I do find smaller fruits, the seed to pulp ratio is the same (could be because it’s just the smallest fruit on the same plant). I think improving the seed to pulp ratio would actually be a better target than fruit size.

If I have time tomorrow I will get a few pics of the ones I have growing. Pretty big variation in fruit size!

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Nice! Care to do some controlled crosses?

I’ll think about it…the best fruiting ones are the spiniest!

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Prickly pear fruit or pads are great for reducing inflammation. Love eating cactus Prickly Pear Cactus

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That was so beautifully written. Thank you

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I’ve eyed this listing on EFN several times, but haven’t committed. It’s probably O stricta or a hybrid, but take a close look at the cut open fruit in the picture. Notice that even though the fruit is much larger with more pulp than a standard O humifusa, the seed to pulp ratio still looks about the same.

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Fruit comparison


From bottom to top: Barr’s Dwarf, Mesa Sky, and Mississippi Unk. Back right is Inermis (Eastern prickly pear).

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Oklahoma pancake

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