Prickly Pear Cactus is the only native cactus to northeastern American (which I am aware of). Some have eaten their fruits. Have you ever tried it? What type of environments have you seen it growing? I’ve spotted it in sandy spots along with talus slopes. Some people despise this plant for reasons I am unsure of (unless they are always getting pricked by it). I wrote a short information post on it if you are interested in taking a look. https://njurbanforest.com/2020/10/17/plants-of-new-jersey-20-prickly-pear-cactus/
In my area we have many kinds and they are difficult to tell apart, so we only ID to genus Opuntia.
I have eaten both the fruit and the stems.
Common here in the Southwest where is perhaps most common on sandy substrates. Several species but I can’t tell most apart. I don’t really notice it unless it’s in flower or I accidentally step in it, which I’ve done many times. The fruit is called tuna and I’ve eaten it a few times; makes a decent jam.
I found a prickly pear cactus in central Pennsylvania on a shale slope. I was shocked to find it because I had no idea there were native cacti in PA! It was one of my coolest finds. I’ve seen it bloom, but never tried to eat the fruit.
I like Opuntia cacti - they have such interesting growth forms and it’s a bonus that their fruit is edible. I’ve bought prickly pear fruit from the supermarket before, and actually googled on how to process it!
It’s a shame that they are invasive here in South Africa; I’ve seen them growing especially vigorously in the Addo region of the Eastern Cape, where the natural vegetation is arid thicket, which has many succulent native plants including several cacti-like Euphorbia and Aloe species and the spekboom Portulacaria afra, so it’s not too surprising that Opuntia would feel very much at home in this region.
In Cape Town far to the west, Opuntia seem to be mostly planted specimens - I’ve personally never seen them spread into the surrounding fynbos.
In the areas where it has naturalised, Opuntia seem to have established complex ecological interactions with native species and the introduced cactus moth Cactoblastis cactorum: native ants seem to be drawn to the extrafloral nectaries and chew on the eggs left by the cactus moth, while vervet monkeys and baboons eat both the fruit and the cactus moth’s caterpillars, which lessen the moth’s effectiveness as a biocontrol agent. I think the moth still does play a role in controlling naturalised populations of Opuntia, but not to the extent that it has in Australia and elsewhere. Opuntia has also played a role as produce to be collected and sold by impoverished rural communities, and as fodder for livestock.
I think here in South Africa we have only a handful of Opuntia species - the widespread species O. ficus-indica and the less common O. stricta.
I’ve eaten prickly pear jam and a kind of fruit leather. Not a fav.
I suspect preparing the “tuna” (I love that term, thanks! @jnstuart ) takes some special expertise.
I (very carefully) collected some for a friend who will eat almost anything wild. She said later it was very hard to get all the spines out of the fruit, and she got stabbed in the roof of her mouth. Ow!
Typically, you need to sear the outside over a flame to make sure you’ve removed all the little spines. You won’t be able to pick out the smallest ones by hand and they are the worst to get out of your skin. The one’s from the store come spine-free, though, so your friend might just stick with those and remove the hassle.
In Arizona, you can sometimes find “Cactus Candy” which is made with the fruit – it’s expensive, but it’s very tasty, so I always grab some when I’m down there.
I love prickly pear fruit! I saw a lot of them in central Texas when I lived in Houston for grad school. I find them both sweet and refreshing. I like to pop the fruits in the blender and make smoothies, or freeze the pulp and use it for fruit-flavored ice cubes (they go real well in lemonade). You just have to be careful to remove the seeds or you’ll crack a tooth. Lots of places in the American SW sell some tasty prickly pear jelly candy like @psweet mentioned, and they’re pretty good. Remind me a bit of Turkish delights. There’s a restaurant in Bodega Bay, CA that I’ve gone to a couple of times that has a tasty prickly pear soda, too. I’ve ordered that every time I’ve visited.
I’ve tried one. I peeled the fruit to avoid the spines. It tastes mostly like a pear, but with a dash of berry. I think the average person can expect to find the fruit to be, at the very least, not objectionable, and I’m sure some people would really like them. I don’t know which exact species I tried.
I’ve seen them growing all sorts of places. Including a big one that’s actually growing in the fork of a large oak tree! I guess there’s a pocket of leaves or something for it to root in. I’ve seen smaller ones on tree branches, and found them on rocky slopes. They seem to be perfectly happy growing as an epiphyte if they get the chance, with just a tiny bit of stuff around their roots, but get bigger when rooted in the soil. They do well basically everywhere around here (central Texas), and people often grow them for decorative purposes. Usually the spineless varieties.
I’ve seen opuntia growing on rocky cliffsides, beach sand, and in the cracks of flat boulders in my area (Northeast NJ/Southeast NY).
I’ve had store bought fruit and the cactus candy from tourist shops in Arizona. The fruit still had a few small, nearly invisible spines and they are very irritating and slightly painful when they get into your skin so it’s best to cut the skin off while wearing some kind of hand protection. They’re also full of small, hard seeds that are better to spit out than to eat. The fruits are juicy and not overly sweet, and they are very tasty, not to mention their beautiful color, just be careful because they can stain clothes.
The candies taste close to the actual fruit but much sweeter, and they’re much easier to eat. I’ll definitely pick up much more next time I’m in the American Southwest.
I have eaten the fruits. I process them by taking a cloth (that I never intend to use for any other purpose) and “polishing” the spines off. They are okay, but too seedy for my preference.
I have also eaten the pads as a vegetable. They are called nopal. Just cut off the clusters of spines.
I eat the fruits and young pads whenever I get a chance. I’ve tried them from many places, but never gotten the opportunity to have the ones from the northeast. Here’s a tip for anyone interested, learned from personal experience eating Cholla cactus buds: After you clean your kitchen or other processing area, do not put the wash cloths or towels in a mixed load of laundry with your underwear!
I’ve eaten the fruits often. Delicious, but you have to be careful opening them up. Lots of seeds, so some people prefer to mash them and extract it as juice or make ajm instead. I prefer eating them. Some people say that eating too many of them can give you the runs, but I’ve never had that problem.
The young paddles (leaves/stem) are excellent eating as well. Best when they’re thin, before the spines grow. Sliced into thin strips they’re especially good in scrambled eggs or in something like huevos rancheros. They’re good preserved as well.
Often you’ll find nopales (from Nopal, the Nahuatl word for the cactus genus prickly pears belong to) sold fresh or preserved in Mexican markets.
Studies indicate that prickly pear, especially the paddles, may be of benefit in coping with type 2 diabetes by assisting in blood sugar regulation, but a good bit more research is needed to conclusively state anything.
Here’s a summary of a variety of research paper abstracts on the subject from back in 2002: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/153321010200700309
I have eaten them and they are good. I have not had any in a few years, though. They are an invasive alien where I live so I do not want to encourage the growing of them. Cochineal bugs are being used as a biocontrol now, but has been hampered because people collect the eggs which are used to make cochineal red (aka carmine red) dye.
In Montana, we have O. polyacantha and O. fragilis. I’ve always wanted to try their fruit, but can never find them fruiting. Not sure what their cycle is, but we rejoiced to see the flowers the last two summers, and never found fruit.
Lewis and Clark Brewing Co. makes a nice Prickly Pear Pale Ale, which I enjoy, but don’t know what part of the flavor profile is particularly “prickly pear”.
Our kids got into a patch of fragilis on a walk a few weeks ago. The leaf segments break off, which allows more spines to stick into flesh. Had to remove shoes, peel off socks and try not to roll the spike-ball down their foot along the way, carry them home and tweeze them out. It was horrific. We’ve had run-ins with polyacantha, which typically has smaller, finer spines that irritate and are hard to remove, but don’t sting as bad. The fragilis spines were longer and took some effort to pull out.
Ouch! Ow, Ow, Ow! Sorry you had that ordeal with the cactus. I imagine it hurt you as much or more than the kids.
It’s hard for imagine how desperate someone would have to be to tackle eating a “tuna” or a nogales. I’ve eaten products of both, but after they were processed and rendered harmless.
We see old plants growing here and there as I think they used to be grown as a security fence on property perimeters. It’s quite effective in that way.
On a similar note, the most commonly seen one in the Dominican Republic is in fact the one called the cochineal cactus. At one one time it was though to be a separate genus, Nopalea, but is now considered a true prickly pear. They are easy to ID to species if in flower, because the hot-pink flowers never open.
It is so commonly cultivated, but also so easily resprouts from discarded pads, it is difficult to tell which ones are wild and which cultivated.
In Maryland they are found most frequently in the Coastal Plain in open dry fields, typically sandy soils. Saw one today (did not take photos) in Southern Anne Arundel County.
I thought the fruit was quite a bit like a pomegranate, red, seedy and sweet. But not as big. I only remember them from the Southwest, Texas to LA and in between in the deserts. Obviously they are something to avoid if you like to touch a plant. Even the slightest touch can detach the tiny spines and pester you for a long time. And people don’t like pulling spines from their dogs maws either. Birds like the fruit.