Prickly Pear

by Cindy Gilberg

In June, the large and delicate yellow flowers of our native prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) appear at the tips of its rounded ‘pads’, or leaves. After attracting many native bees that come to collect pollen and nectar, oblong red fruit ripens—which is the “pear” part of this unusual hardy succulent. Species of the prickly pear are also known as nopale and have been a staple in the diet of Mexico and Central America for thousands of years but never became a popular food crop north of the border. This more unusual native plant makes an exotic addition for edible landscaping since the leaves (pads) and fruit are edible.

To grow this hardy cactus, you can start with as little as a single pad. In spring or fall, place the pad into the soil about 1-2 inches deep—it will begin to grow roots very quickly after contact with soil. It native habitat includes the drier ecosystems such as sandhill prairies, dry open woodlands, glades, and dry upland prairies. Prickly pear is highly drought tolerant and prefers a drier, well-draining soil that is gravely or sandy in full to part sun. Rock garden soils are typical of what these succulents prefer. Our native species grows to a height of about 1.5 feet and spreads out as a ground cover. It is not a good choice to plant where children play or along sidewalks where unwary walkers might hit a spine. The large pads make a beautiful and striking contrast to fine-textured plants such as prairie dropseed grass, slender mountain mint, sand phlox or aromatic aster.

The sap of the prickly pear is sticky to slimy, very much like okra so it is not one to eat raw but is better after cooking. When harvesting any part of this plant, always wear thick leather gloves, such as rose gloves or similar for protection against not only the obvious long spines but especially for protection against the tiny clusters of short spines which are much more irritating. The large, rounded leaves, or ‘pads’, should be collected in spring to early summer. Leave pads that are finishing flowering and setting fruit. Hold pads over a flame to remove spines, roast them over a fire, and then peel the skin and spines (rinse the knife off between peelings due to the sticky sap). Slice the pad into 1/4 inch long slices and add it to a pot of salted boiling water. Boil for about 15 minutes, drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. A yummy salsa can be made by chopping a small white onion, a medium-sized tomato, some cilantro and mixing with the nopales (diced). Add salt, pepper and lime juice to taste. For a spicy salsa, add diced hot peppers. Nopales can also be added to salads, grilled with other vegetables, or sautéed with onions and peppers as a side to eggs or wrapped up in a tortilla as a snack. Fruit is collected later in the summer—it also has spines so don’t put those gloves away yet. Trim both ends of the fruit and make a lengthwise cut in the fruit. Then scoop out the pulp for later use to make sorbet, syrup or jelly. A quick online search for recipes yields all sorts of culinary delights to try.

Eating fresh, local foods is even more fulfilling when you have an edible landscape and local is your very own yard! There are books on edible native plants available at the Missouri Department of Conservation (www.mdc.mo.gov) and at the Visitor’s Center at Shaw Nature Reserve (www.shawnature.org).

Cindy Gilberg is a Missouri native and horticulturist whose work includes design and consulting, teaching and writing. Much of her work focuses on native plants, habitat gardens and rain gardens. Cindy’s projects include work at Shaw Nature Reserve and its Native Plant School, the Shaw Profes-sional Landscape Series and the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance. You can ontact Cindy at 314-630-1004 or cindy.gilberg@gmail.com.