Yesterday, I posted a cactus flower. My artsy cactus flower. The truth is that the wind was blowing the cactus plants all around, and I was doing my routine St. Vitus number with the camera so the flower was out of focus. I did have one photograph that was reasonably focused, but I liked the artsy one. Now, that’s downright silly. It showed you nothing about what a cactus plant and its blossoms and fruit look like. It wasn’t even a good artsy photo! Today, I am posting what I hope are photographs that illustrate what the prickly pear cactus actually looks like.
This photograph shows the bud (beside and to the right of the flower) from which the flower opens. The edible nopalito (new leaf pad) is to the left of the flower. It has already developed its almost invisible glocids (hair-like spines) and the larger spines, both of which stick in the skin, but it is still edible. This nopal or nopilato is the pad-shaped part of the cactus that is boiled, grilled, served in salads or made into many other dishes throughout the southwestern US as well as in Mexico and Latin America. These new pads appear in the spring and are harvested while they are still bright green and tender. They are sold in grocery stores and labeled “Tuna”.
Here you can see the flower buds before they open. The spent flowers have fallen off from their bases as you see along the top edge of the cactus pad. The remaining bulbous bases will develop into the cactus fruit which is called a pear. The bulb on the center left of the pad is further along in this development process. It is said that the deep purple or orange fruit is the sweetest.
In this photograph, you can see the mature cactus pears as well as ones that are still developing. The pears here are probably too old to eat. They look as if insects have already feasted on them. I saw a video in which a man used a blow torch to burn off the glocids from the pears before he picked them using tongs to avoid getting glocids in his skin. Native Americans simply pounded or dragged them through the hard, packed sand to remove the spines and glocids. They are peeled and eaten much the same as apples, and are referred to colloquially as “cactus apples” in some places. Jams, jellies, sorbet, candy and even wine are also made from the pears.
The prickly pear nopalitos are popular in Europe and in the Mediterranean as well as in the southern United States. It is considered to be a healthy diet staple in areas where it grows wild and is widely eaten in many countries. The cactus grows wild from South America to Canada. Shimon told me that it also grows in Israel where its flowers are much appreciated. It is grown commercially for distribution in stores and markets. The lowly prickly pear has gained a new appreciation among gourmets and foodies as well as among dietitians. It tastes like green beans and is recommended as an approved source of vegetable nutrition for diabetics. There appears to be no limit to its success. I suspect that the early native American would smile if he knew that the common “Beaver Tails” are regarded as a gourmet dish by people today.