Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia species)
The Prickly Pear (or Paddle) cactus has flat, padlike stems that are green. The Prickly Pear has two kinds of spines – hard, fixed spines and small, hairlike prickles that easily penetrate the skin and detach from the plant. The plants grow in dense, tangled structures with each plant having many round, furry dots that contain sharp-pointed hairs cover these stems.
Where to Find: This cactus is found in arid and semiarid regions and in dry, sandy areas of wetter regions throughout most of the United States and Central and South America. Some species are planted in arid and semiarid regions of other parts of the world.
Edible Parts: All parts of the plant are edible. Peel the fruits to remove the hair-like spines and eat them fresh or crush them to prepare a refreshing drink. Avoid the tiny, pointed hairs which are more irritating to the mouth and stomach than the hard, thorn-like protrusions.. Roast the seeds and grind them to a flour (when raw, they are very hard and can break your teeth).
The pads are edible and produce the most product. Remove pads from the plant by breaking or cutting them off. New pads are the best. Older pads (the thicker pads on the plant) can be stringy. Older pads also contain the most sap. Boiling the cactus multiple times will thin the sap.
Remove all spines (both the hard ones and the hair-like ones) by peeling the pad. Cook the pads by boiling, grilling, or just eat them raw.
Note: Avoid any plant that resembles the prickly pear cactus and has milky sap.
Other Uses: The pad is a good source of water. Peel it carefully to remove all sharp hairs before putting it in your mouth. You can also use the pads to promote healing. Split them and apply the pulp to wounds.