Imagine a plant which can provide you with several year-round foods, as well as a sweetener, medicine, a red dye, flour, a hair conditioner, and still be a drought tolerant burglar fence. Not just found in AZ deserts Prickly Pear cactus grows throughout the United States, across the plains to Nebraska, all over the west, and one species even grows along the Atlantic coast.
Although cacti are about 90 percent water you can’t tap one with a spigot and fill your canteen. But you can eat the pads, seeds, fruit and flowers prepared in a variety of ways. I like the flowers fresh off the plant.
Of course you must be careful of the spines, both large and smaller hair-like spines called glochids can really hurt, but can be knocked off with a stick or burned off. Young shiny pads are best, then peel the skin and eat raw, boiled, or fried. Add onions and eggs for Huevos rancheros con nopalitos or use as a thickener in stews. If you don’t want to go through all the work try looking for a jar of nopalitos (cactus pads) in the grocery store.
The fruit, which ripens during late summer, can also be eaten raw or used to make delicious drinks, pies, jams, candy and syrup. It is loaded with tiny seeds which can just be eaten with the fruit or dried and ground into flour.
Current research indicates Prickly Pear cactus might decrease cholesterol levels and help diabetics lower blood glucose by decreasing the absorption of sugar in the stomach and intestine.
Cactus pads can also be used as a hair conditioning rinse by agitating pieces of the peeled pads with water then after straining the mucilaginous liquid is massaged into the hair and rinsed resulting in silkier hair. (I know it’s easier to just buy conditioner.)
Prickly Pear cactus is an easy to grow food source that is drought resistant but not tolerant of snow, frost or extremely wet conditions. In the right environment it can grow into a natural fence that will deter most animals and people over its 20 plus year lifespan.