Sunday, August 14, 2011

Prickly Pear Fruit Harvesting and Natural History

Prickly Pear cactus with ripe fruits.  
End of July through August tasty tunas ripen all over the Sonoran Desert.  Tunas in the desert you may ask?  Tunas are simply a common name utilized for Prickly Pear fruit in the Southwest, actually having nothing to do with the fish and are much sweeter.  After blooming in spring, a green fruit appears at the base of the flower.  After months of ripening through blazing summer heat, the green fruit turns pink, then red, and finally a dark red wine color.  Once fruits are red, they are ready for picking but flavor can change considerably as the color changes.  After ripening, if the fruit is not eaten it simply dries up and falls to the ground.  Prickly Pear is most abundant in areas receiving greater than eight inches of rain annually and where much of this rain comes in summer.  Mountainous areas in the eastern Sonoran Desert, such as west of Phoenix and around Tucson, can have huge thickets of Prickly Pears often blanketing the landscape in places.  The number of fruits a plant produces annually depends on how much rain was received during winter months.  However, even in average rainfall years, so many fruits are produced even the animals will not be able to eat them all.  Luckily, these fruits keep for a month or so on the plant.  Even then, most of the fruits will not be eaten.
Desert Tulip Prickly Pear flower blooming in April (Opuntia phaeacantha)
As with all fruits, fruits are meant to be eaten.  The Prickly Pear produces brightly colored sweet fruits, attracting birds of many types as well as Javelina, Deer, Chipmunks, Coyotes, Kit Fox, Pack Rats and just about any other desert dwelling animal, including humans!  All cacti produce a brightly colored fruit with seeds filling the pulp inside.  Most cacti, such as Saguaros, produce tiny black seeds that are highly adapted to being eaten by birds.  Prickly Pears, however, contain tan seeds, many times larger that are as hard as rocks.  Oddly, if you were to simply to plant one, water it, and wait for it to grow, nothing would probably happen.  These rock hard seeds are rock hard for a reason.  They are designed to be eaten by animals and have their seed coat partially digested, making them ready for germination.

In Mexico, South America, and the Mediterranean region domestic Prickly Pears are cultivated for both their pads and fruit.  Depending on the variety, large red, green, yellow, or orange fruits can be produced.  In the wild however, red is the only edible fruit color.  Many different species produce edible fruits, but in the Sonoran Desert Engelmann's and the Desert Tulip Prickly Pears (Opuntia engelmannii and phaeacantha) are probably the most abundant that produce edible fruits.  Many species produce inedible fruits, but they aren't poisonous, the fruits simply dry out before they can be eaten.  Native Americans generally did not eat too many fruits at one time however, being too many fruits can produce a fever for some unknown reason.  The same is true today, if you eat wild prickly pear fruit don't eat too many, or you likely will be running a fever.  The fruits are extremely tasty and refreshing, something like a cross between strawberry and watermelon.

How to Harvest Prickly Pear Fruit
1.  Find a Prickly Pear cactus with red fruits on it during the months of July or August.  Fruits will taste different depending on their color, species, location, and time of day harvested.  Experiment and find what tastes best to you, but don't worry about it, if ripe they all taste pretty darn good.
2. Using a grill tongs pick the fruit off the cactus.  The tongs will help you avoid being poked by the spines.  A few dozen fruits will be plenty to start.
3. Freeze the fruits for several days.  This burst the cells containing the juice.
4. Thaw out the fruits and then mash them in a bowl.
5. Once the fruits are mashed, strain out the juice into another container.
6. This juice should be boiled and can be used for a variety of different recipes.  I simply like to drink some of it.

Another version of the above is to place the fruits in water and boil.  Boiling, like freezing, bursts cells releasing the juice.  After boiling, mash the fruits and strain out the juice.

Website with Prickly Pear fruit recipes:,1-0,prickly_pear,FF.html

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