Can You Eat Cactus: A Guide About Edible Cactus Plants

Most cactus plants are edible. In fact, most are nutritious and environmentally friendly! Many people living in deserts use them to supplement their diets or as a valuable source of water. Yet most people don't know that cactus can be eaten!

The wild is full of edible plants, but it can sometimes be confusing trying to determine and pick then out from the millions of plant species out there. Cactus is one of these plants. Considering its weird growth style and intimidating appearance, you may be tempted to believe all cacti are poisonous. Nothing could be further from the truth; there are several edible cacti species.

So, can you eat cactus? A good number of cacti species are edible. Some of the notable edible parts of cacti are fruits, leaves, and pods. While some can be eaten raw, others need to be boiled. Most of the edible cacti come from the genus Opuntia that encompasses over 200 species. Some of the most common edible cactus types include Prickly pear, Barrel cactus, Saguaro, Dragon fruit, and Cereus peruvianus.

In this post, we seek to offer a detailed guide on edible cacti. We take a look at some of the edible species, how to identify, preparation, and how best to benefit from their edible parts. Let’s delve right in.

Prickly Pear

Prickly pear is the most common of the edible cacti. It stands out with its oval-shaped flat leaves. Both the leaves and fruits of the prickly pear are edible. Its fruit grows from the flat prickly leaves or pads. While the pads or leaves are also edible, most people focus on the sweet and nutritious fruit.

Prickly pear is one of the most popular edible cacti worldwide with oval-shaped red to orange colored fruits.

The fruit is usually red or green in its initial stages. As it ripens, however, it turns into various shades of red to orange. While the red fruit varieties are sweet, the green ones are a little tard.

1. Harvesting

Harvesting the edible parts of a prickly pear needs caution. Its pads contain sharp spines while the fruit features some prickly hair-like splinters (glochids) that may also harm if not handled carefully. These can easily penetrate the skin and cause severe irritation.

Based on this, it is recommended to wear some protective gear, preferably a thick towel or leather gloves before harvesting the fruits or pads.

2. Preparation and eating

After harvesting the fruit, the next step would be the removal of its glochids. Do this by gently roasting the fruit over an open flame. The fruit needs to be peeled to gain access to its delicious soul. Do this by removing its outer skin. Slice the skin across starting from the top.

This should make it possible to peel off using your fingers easily. Notably, the prickly pear features some little, hard seeds that are not chewable. You may choose to simply spit out or remove them altogether before eating the fruit.

3. Nutritional benefits

Prickly pear is nutritiously rich in essential fatty acids and minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and magnesium. The red variety of fruits is rich in carotenoids and are high in fiber.

Dragon fruit (White Fleshed Pitahaya)

Dragon fruit’s appearance is so bizarre you wouldn’t immediately recognize it as a fruit.  It takes the shape and appearance of a flower. Also referred to as strawberry pear, Pitahaya or Pitaya, dragon fruit was one of the primary sources of food for the natives.

Notably, Pitaya and Pitahaya are two distinct varieties of the fruit. While Pitahaya belongs to the Hylocereus genus and is sweet, Pitaya, on the other hand, belongs to the Stenocereus genus and tastes a little sour.

Dragon fruit, also referred to as a strawberry pear, has a flower-like appearance and is among edible plants.

1. Preparation and eating

While the fruit can easily be eaten as is, some prefer it chilled before preparation. Dragon fruit’s preparation for eating is pretty straightforward. Simply cut the fruit in two halves and use a spoon to scoop out the fleshy and juicy goodness that lies within.

The fleshy, edible part of the fruit is usually pink or white in color but dotted with small black seeds similar to those of the kiwi fruit. The outer skin of the fruit is, however, not edible. Apart from eating the dragon fruit raw, you can also include it in smoothies or better still turn it into sorbet. The flowers can also be eaten by turning it into cooked vegetables.

2. Nutritional benefits

Dragon fruit is highly rich in vitamin A and C. You can also expect to get minerals like magnesium, calcium and phosphorous. It is an excellent diet fruit thanks to its high fiber content and low calories.

Saguaro

Saguaro is one of the most common and largest edible cacti in North America. Its fruits are a result of its flowers that sprout at the top of the cactus. The fruit is usually about 3 inches, round and scaly. Just like the prickly pear, Saguaro’s fruits turn red when ripe.

As the fruit gets fully ripe, it splits open to expose a deliciously bright red flesh. Its flesh also contains small black seeds just like the dragon fruit.

Saguaro is among the largest cacti that produces reddish fruits with tiny black seeds, similarly to dragon fruit.

Harvesting of the Saguaro fruit was considered a festival and is an American Indian tradition. During this time, usually in June, the Natives would camp in areas densely populated with the cacti. Harvesting of the fruit needs a pole about 30 feet long. This would be used to knock off the fruits from the top of the cactus.

1. Preparation and eating

After harvesting, the fruit will need to be detached from the husk. Sometimes, the fruit may not be fully split. In such, case, you will need to split it yourself and lay it bare before separating it from the husk. Using a spoon, you can then remove its seeds and pulp. The fruit’s pulp and seeds would traditionally be soaked in hot water as a mixture for about three hours. It would then be mashed and hand-mixed thoroughly in water.

At this point, the resulting liquid can be consumed as is. However, it is usually more preferable to boil it for a couple of hours to prevent it from fermenting too fast. This would then be followed by seed a pulp removal before finally simmering the liquid into a thick syrup. At this point, the syrup can either be made into wine, jam or dried fruit leather. For Saguaro, the fruit is the only edible part of the plant.

2. Nutritional benefits

Saguaro produces a highly nutritious fruit, high in protein and low in calories. It is also rich in vitamin C and vitamin B12.

Barrel Cactus

Barrel cactus is one of the few cacti with almost every part of the plant being edible.  Apart from the thorny, outer skin, almost every other part of the barrel cactus is edible. Fruits from the barrel cactus are spineless, thus easy to pick. In fact, these fruits can be eaten straight off the cactus.

Excluding the thorny outer skin, the entire barrel cactus is edible and is characterized by lemony flavor.

Barrel cactus fruits have a tart flavor that mimics lemons, only that the seeds get in the mix to add that nutty flavor. In its initial stages, barrel fruits are green and would gradually turn yellow as they ripen. Once fully yellow, simply pluck them off using your bare hands or use a knife to cut it from the base of the fruit.

1. Preparation and eating

Apart from being eaten raw, barrel cactus can be cooked as well. The seeds are a good addition to yogurt, bread, and granola. To separate the seeds from the fruit, simply cut it into two and let it dry for about three days. You can then pick them off from the fruit using a spoon before dry roasting them in a hot pan. The rest of the fruit can be included in dishes like chutney or even turned into candied fruit treats.

2. Nutritional benefits

Fruits from barrel cactus are high in vitamins C and A. The pulp is also high in fiber and features analgesic properties. This is a great addition to any healthy diet, thanks to its low fat and low calories.

How to forage, harvest and eat cactus the right way

Cactus fruits may be highly sought for their nutritional benefits, but not everyone dares seek them in the wild or even at home.  This is all thanks to their intimidating spikes and bristles.  The tiny spines and the bristly glochids can cause severe irritation on the skin. However, this need not be much of a problem if you seek the right tools for the job using proper equipment like heavy gloves, a sharp knife, a sack, and long handles fork will go a long way in making your forage successful.

As much as there is a good number of edible cactus, it is also worth noting that some cacti are highly poisonous to man and animals. It is, therefore, advisable to practice caution when seeking edible cactus. Consult an experienced gardener if in doubt about a cactus fruit’s safety before eating.

The same should also apply when seeking to plant such cacti at home.  As already established, some cactus fruits can be eaten raw, some are cooked, and others will need their husks or spines removed before eating. With these considerations in place, you can rest assured of enjoying the nutritional benefits that come with edible cacti.

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