This week’s plant for Wild Edible Wednesday is Opuntia humifosa, or Eastern Prickly Pear. As much as it looks like it belongs in an old Clint Eastwood western, this is, in fact, the only cactus species that is widespread in the Eastern Woodlands. While relatively rare as a result of being picky about habitat, it can be found in nearly every state east of the Mississippi. And if you’re lucky enough to find one, it makes a reliable and nutritious year-round wild edible and medicinal plant.
Eastern prickly pear is a herbaceous paddle cactus that’s a member of the widespread Opuntia genus. This genus contains two main categories of species – the tall, multi-branched, ultra-spiny and inedible Cholla cacti, and the much more useful Prickly Pears. Also known as Nopal, Indian Fig, Devil’s Tongue, or Beavertail Cactus, the prickly pears are some of the most successful cacti species on earth, ranging widely throughout North and South America. They are extremely common in the dry areas of both continents, to the point of being weeds in some areas like South Texas. (Imagine trying to pull THAT out of your yard!) All prickly pears look pretty much the same – other than the huge tree-like Saguaro, they’re probably what most everyone thinks of when they think of a cactus. They are upright, spreading plants with thick, succulent, paddle-shaped stems approximately the size of a human hand. These pads are covered in nodes called areoles, which is where everything on cactus grows from. They briefly birth true leaves in the spring, followed by new pads, bright yellow flowers, and later, fruit. Each areole is also covered in tiny, hairy spines called glochids, and may or may not have a long, sharp spine in its center. While the spines look intimidating and are insanely sharp, it’s really the glochids you need to worry about. Barely visible, stiff, and itchy, they can embed themselves in your skin and cause irritation for weeks. Ever worked with fiberglass insulation on a hot day when you’re sweaty? Imagine that, but worse.
The Eastern prickly pear shows up in some surprising areas. As I mentioned, it ranges in every state from the Rockies to the Atlantic Coast and from Florida to Nova Scotia. In fact, it’s Canada’s only native cactus species. It is an incredibly hardy plant. It has a natural antifreeze in its pads that help it endure temperatures as cold as fifty degrees below zero. Although technically common and ranging over a huge area of North America, prickly pear is found only in a narrow habitat range. Its primary criteria for success is that its roots stay dry through the winter, so that it doesn’t rot. As such, it grows on sand dunes and in draws along the coast, or dry, barren mountaintops, and rocky, sandy woods with sparse soil further inland. The further west you travel and the dryer it gets, the more common this plant becomes. In Georgia, I’ve personally seen it on the leeward side of Kennesaw Mountain, Pine Mountain in Columbus, Blood Mountain on the Appalachian Trail, and in the dry, sandy woods of the limestone Karst topography in west Georgia around Cedartown. I’ve also spotted lots of it at St. Andrews State Park outside of Panama City Beach, Florida. (Yeah, I really am that guy who’s foraging for wild edibles in PCB instead of drinking on the beach.) It’s also been a popular ornamental plant in the South for generations, so you may also have luck finding it around abandoned home sites. (Full disclosure: I cheated a bit for this one. The plant pictured is living comfortably at Atlanta Botanical Gardens. It’s a beautiful specimen, but foraging is definitely discouraged there.)
Prickly pear has a long and established history as a food source for millions of people. Folks in the American Southwest have been eating it since, well, they got there. Every part of the plant is edible, and it has no deadly mimics. Both the fruit and the pads are a staple in Latin American cooking, and have a whole host of recipes associated with them. The pads are more versatile, and also more readily available. The fruit shows up in late summer to early fall, but good luck getting any. Every type of wildlife that walks, crawls, flies, or scurries loves them, and they’re usually gone well before they ripen. They leave the pads alone, though. The only species I know that eats those regularly is the gopher tortoise.
The pads have a flavor and texture profile very similar to okra but with hints of lemon, so if you like okra, you’ll probably like prickly pear. They fry up really well, either in chunks or in strips. They’re great in soups, and they’re not bad raw in salads, although that’s a bit slimy for my taste. My personal favorite way to fix them is cut into thin strips, breaded, and deep fried. Get you some dipping sauce (chipotle ranch!) and you’ve got yourself a batch of cactus fries. Recipes abound, so let your imagination run wild. The best way to harvest them is to either get a pair of heavy leather gloves or a set of tongs to grab the pad, and then slice it off with your knife. You can either peel the skin off, or just burn off the spines and glochids. Either way, make sure they’re gone before you eat the pad. An itching, burning mouthful of spiny cacti hairs is a special kind of hell. If you’re looking to experiment and think you’ll be eating a lot of prickly pear, it’s probably easier and more responsible to buy pads pre-cut and pre-cleaned at your local Latin American grocery store than it is to forage them. But for winter wilderness survival, these evergreen cacti are definitely worth keeping in mind.
The fruit, when you can get them, are delicious. They have a flavor all their own, and a unique red color. The prickly pears of the wet and temperate Eastern Woodlands aren’t quite as big or as sweet as the ones that grow in the tropical deserts of Mexico that you find in stores, but they’re still pretty good. Carefully peel off the outer skin and spines, and eat them seeds and all. You can use them to make anything you’d make from any other sweet fruit, like pies, candies, jellies, jams, and other confections. They make a great sauce or reduction to serve alongside upland game birds like quail. Also – prickly pear margaritas. Highly recommend. Like the pads, if you’re really stoked to try the fruit, go to the store. Wild-foraged prickly pears are an acquired taste and very difficult to come by.
Just as prickly pears have been eaten by native peoples throughout their range for thousands of years, they’ve been used medicinally as well. Most of the health benefits of prickly pear come from eating either the pads or the fruit, but it’s sometimes used as an infusion or a poultice as well. Eating prickly pear can help remedy type 2 diabetes, as it lowers overall blood sugar levels. Both the pads and fruit are high in fiber, antioxidants, and carotenoids. They’re great for digestive health, and their high antioxidant levels (more present in the fruit) have been linked to preventing cancer and reducing tumor growth. For colon cancer specifically, there have been several clinical trials that have shown positive results from prickly pear consumption. The plant also contains a myriad of anti-inflammatory compounds that can help ease muscle pain, help joint inflammation, and even cure hangovers. An infusion of the plant has been used for generations to treat lung ailments such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and asthma. I think one of the coolest medicinal uses of prickly pear is externally as a poultice. You can use it much like an aloe vera leaf to soothe and speed healing of burns, cuts, and scrapes. Just make sure to remove the spines first.
So while it’s one of the most exotic plants we’ve covered on Wild Edible Wednesday, and not necessarily common in the Eastern Woodlands, the Prickly Pear is a real wild edible treasure if you can find it. Since it isn’t common and grows fairly slowly here, always forage responsibly. As we’ve talked about with foraging other relatively rare plants, leave at least one plant out of every ten untouched. And if you’re going to experiment with it in the kitchen, buy it at the store. But if you’re on a walkabout and sustaining yourself with whatever the forest blesses you with, help yourself to some okra-flavored succulent pads and sweet fruit.
Are you a fan of prickly pear? What’s your favorite way to fix it? Tell us in the comments!