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These days, you find people eating extraordinary things like the spiny sea urchin. Okay, I must agree that seafood is delicious. But where I come from, eating a prickly pear is so tasty and a great treat.
Here in South Africa, we find them growing in different parts of the country, from the Karoo to the coast. Yes, the famous Mexican cuisine has been around here for centuries. Yet, the aka nopal cactuses might look intimidating.
But the cactus fruits are sweet and have many health benefits. So let’s look a bit closer at the prickly pear fruit and different types of edible cacti species you can grow in your garden. Stay tuned as Plantly will tell you some edible cacti you can try for yourself.
Are Cacti Safe to Eat?
Okay, you have determined that you can eat cactus fruits by now. But how do you enjoy them? Well, you eat them very carefully, only joking. The only care you need to take is when you remove them from the plant as it has very thin hairs, especially the prickly pear.
You do not want those fine hairs getting into your hands, ouch. So when you grow an edible cactus plant depending on the species, always wear gloves. Also, make sure to use a scrubbing brush to remove those fine hairs.
But if you buy them in the shop, the fruit is already cleaned for you to enjoy. You can enjoy the cacti fruit pulp raw, stewed, juiced, grilled, jellied, and yes, in a cocktail. A fact is that many people, for centuries, from the Sonoran Desert to around the world, enjoy this delicacy.
Yet, not all of them are edible cactus plants. The fact is that some are very harmful to humans. But the varieties we have on the menu for today will provide you with a delicious treat. The fruit is eco-friendly, nutritious, and provides hydration.
Most Common Types of Edible Cacti
Before we get to the edible cacti fruits, let’s learn more about these delicious treats. The first fact is that the fruits develop from the pads and other plant parts, depending on the species.
You may find that the prickly pads are edible, but most people prefer fruit that can be green or red. Once the fruit ripens, it changes color from green, orange, and red, to dark purple.
The best is to avoid the green fruits as they tend to taste a bit tart compared to the darker tones that are sweet. So, are you ready to order from the prickly pear menu? Then let’s get started.
Dragon Fruit Cactus
This starter cactus is easy to grow, and you can find dragon fruit available in stores. The succulent outdoor plant grows in tropical and subtropical regions from Mexico, and Australia, to Southeast Asia.
The reason for the interesting name is the leathery skin on the dragon fruit with the scaley-looking spikes. In Central America and Mexican cuisine, the people call it pitaya or pitahaya. But in Asia, chefs call it the strawberry pear.
The fantastic thing is the red fruits are free of those pesky thorns, but your yellow variety does have thorns. The good news is when you buy the yellow fruits, they are de-thorned. So to enjoy this edible cactus fruit, you cut them in half and scoop out the inside with a spoon.
The taste can also vary from one dragon fruit to another, sweet to sour, or reasonably mild. These fruits work well in smoothies or are placed on a fruit tray with other tropical fruits. Eating the fruit provides you with magnesium and loads of Vitamin C.
Prickly Pear Fruit
The prickly pear fruits are called figs or tuna and are found commercially available. The pads of the cactus are called the nopales. You can eat both the pads and fruits raw or cooked from this plant. You might find the edible parts canned and ready to eat depending on where you live.
These cactus species’ pads you can find available throughout the year. The fruits have high nutritional benefits with a tangy vegetal taste and are a bit slimy. You can serve the cacti pads raw or chop them up in a salad.
Or you add them to soup, stew, baked, or grilled. In Mexican cuisine, you find them served with scrambled eggs, baked with cheese, or in tacos. The prickly pear fruits are eaten raw with a sweet taste when fully ripe.
The taste is different with a combination of strawberry and watermelon. It also has beneficial minerals and vitamins, and even a margarita goes down well made with this fruit.
Looking at the barrel cactus, you would not think it grows fleshy fruit. Still, it is one of the prized cactus fruits. I have not tested them, but those I have spoken to love them. The cactus pear has a tangy lemon flavor and resembles a small pineapple.
Yes, we know the cactus barrel looks intimidating with its fishhook curved spines, but the best part is the fruit is spine-free. You find tiny pineapples available from November to March. Even harvesting the fruit is not difficult.
So, if you want to have barrel cactus fruits in the garden, you grasp the fruit and twist it. Next, remove the dried flower bud and slice your fruit in half. The inside of the fruit is filled with tiny black seeds.
From the fresh fruit to the seeds, edible with a bland nutty flavor. You can add the seeds to bread or in a muffin mix or blend them into your smoothie. You can dry the fruit to add to soups and stews.
Peruvian Apple Cactus
Compared to most cactus plants, the Peruvian apple is a fast-growing succulent, rare plant that produces delicious fruit looking like apples. A fact is that this cactus is the cause of the dragon fruit cactus.
The fruit is fleshy on the inside with a similar taste. The color of the skin when it ripens turns from a blueish purple to orange-red. Finally, the skin splits in two and is ready to pick. Like its cousin, the fruits are spineless and easy to hand pluck when ripe unless you buy from the grocery stores.
Preparing the fruit is simple as the skin peels easily when ripe and falls off. You can scoop out the inner flesh and enjoy it the same way as the dragon fruit. It has a mildly tart flavor with some sweet floral goodness.
You find this edible cactus plant growing all over Southwest America. It has edible flowers harvested from March to May. Still, a note of warning this cactus will try to attack you at first. No, it’s true. It is one crazy cactus.
On the plant is a middle woody stalk that has thin arms covered with sharp spines growing in all directions. The small parts easily detach from this succulent and can stick to your skin. Hence, you do not find these edible cactus plants on most restaurant menus.
Still, if you want to give them a try, we recommend eating from the pencil cholla cactus, buckhorn. Then armor yourself with a suit and a welders helmet with thick leather gloves.
Invest in a pair of long tongs to grasp the buds and give them a mighty twist. If you survive, it then uses an open flame from a small chef’s blow torch to dispatch the spines on the fruit. Then boil the fruit down using a simple syrup recipe and leave it to cool.
Once strained, use the syrup in your cocktails or over pancakes. You can also eat the cactus flower raw in the wild. But, of course, that is if you can get to them without an armored suit.
Yes, this cactus is stately and is similar to your prickly pear cactus. You can harvest the fruit from May to July. Still, the Native Plant Protection Act protects the Saguaro cactus in Arizona.
So, you will need a permit to harvest this plant, and even worse, gathering it is a tricky business. You find the edible fruits growing at the top of the floral crown high from the ground. Hence, if you want to enjoy it’s sweet fruit, you will need a long cross-shaped pole like the Tohono O’odham called the kuipad.
According to people who have tried them, the fruit is pulpy and has many tiny seeds. It is sweet and filled with minerals and antioxidants. You can enjoy it raw or scoop the pulp to boil into syrup.
Health Benefits of Eating Cactus
By now, you know the fruit of the cactus is safe to eat. According to WebMD, the truth is that it is a staple for many Latin American cultures. No matter how you eat cactus, the fruit has many health benefits.
The fruit and pads help manage cholesterol as they are high in fiber and help reduce body fat to blood pressure.
The cactus fruit can ease a hangover by containing Vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, and iron. It also helps reduce inflammation in the body.
Some cactus species’ fruits can help reduce blood sugar like diabetes.
Furthermore, it can boost the immune system by providing your body with Vitamin C.