In late summer and early fall, Native prickly pear cactus grow heavy with edible, ruby-red fruit. Harvesting the pears can be tricky, but deciding what to do with them is not as problematic. Make prickly-pear jelly? Prickly pear bread? Prickly-pear margaritas?
Prickly pear fruits were the first wild food I gathered since we arrived here in Prescott, we actually have a couple of them right on property between the rocks, using tongs to pick the sticky cactus fruits, licking the sweet juice off our fingers when the fruit was punctured. For me, the fragrance of those sun-warmed prickly pear fruits has become the defining memory of late summer, part of a quest for edible wild plants to incorporate in our menu planning at Watson Lake Inn.
Native populations throughout the Southwest and Mexico have relied on prickly pear for millennia for food and medicine. Prickly pear fruit are low in calories — about 12 calories each — and high in vitamins A and C as well as other antioxidants and flavonoids. They also contain calcium, magnesium, and potassium. The unsweetened juice has proven helpful in lowering cholesterol and blood sugar, helping athletes with endurance, and even preventing a hangover.
For decades prickly pears were used by the Anglo population only as a jelly ingredient. Sometime in the early 1990s, with the arrival of a new interest in Southwest flavors, top chefs began looking at the juice as an interesting novelty, including it on their menus as a sauce or drink ingredient.
The flavor depends on the variety and varies from plant to plant. Some compare it to watermelon or honeydew melon. Others suggest the flavor is berry-like or similar to cucumbers. Most fruits have slightly musky flavor notes unlike anything I’ve tasted elsewhere. It is truly the flavor of the Southwest.
Ready to try Native prickly pear cactus?
You need a $7 permit from the Arizona State Land Department to harvest prickly pears, saguaro, cholla and agave among other natives on state land. Do not remove fruit from private property without the owner’s permission.
How to harvest the fruit
Regardless of where you get the prickly pears, harvest with care. The fruit contains small clusters of spines called glochids that can easily detach and stick in your skin. Glochids don’t look like much, but they are mighty annoying and well worth avoiding.
Or simply book a suite at Watson Lake Inn and you may feast on prickly pear quick bread and jelly for breakfast, lunch or dinner salad with local produce and a prickly pear vinaigrette or sherbet among other culinary creations.
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