Succulent plants occur naturally in arid environments around the world and many species are cultivated as ornamentals for their striking appearance and resistance to drought conditions. Of the many cultivated succulent species, a handful add a useful element to gardens with their edible leaves and fruit, which can be eaten raw or cooked.
Commonly called prickly pear, Opuntia ficus-indica is perhaps the most common edible succulent. The name refers to the juicy, reddish-purple fruit that develop atop the leaves in summer. While wholly edible, the fruit is filled with seeds that prove difficult to digest for many people. The flat, spiny pads of prickly pear are also edible and are widely eaten across Latin America as a vegetable called nopales. Both the fruit and pads of prickly pear must be cleaned of their spines before consumption and both can be eaten raw or cooked. However, the pads are more palatable when cooked since they have a slightly soapy taste when eaten raw.
Night-blooming cereus is the common name for several species of epiphytic cacti within the genus Hylocereus. The plants bear fragrant, showy flowers during the summer months that later develop into edible fruit called pitaya, or dragon fruit. Each fruit is filled with creamy white flesh that has a subtly sweet flavor and scent. Many gardeners grow night-blooming cereus as an ornamental and most will never see a fruit develop, but you can greatly increase the likelihood of the plant developing a fruit if it is kept under warm, bright greenhouse-like conditions.
The clear, mucilaginous sap found inside the leaves of aloe vera plants is widely used as an herbal remedy for skin irritation and burns, but it is also edible and sometimes consumed as a drink to relieve digestive upset. Extracting the edible sap from aloe vera is simple and takes only a knife to cut the leaves lengthwise and a bowl to catch the sap as you squeeze it out. No special preparation is required before consuming aloe vera sap, but its thick texture and slightly bitter taste is unpleasant to many people and can be greatly improved by mixing it with an equal measure of filtered water.
Mission lettuce and fingertips are two synonymous common names for Dudleya edulis, a species of succulent native to southern California. Few gardeners cultivate mission lettuce due to its unremarkable appearance, which features upright, green bean-like stems arranged in a rosette pattern. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, but cooking brings out the sweet flavor of the flesh and will lessen the unpleasant chalky taste many people report after eating them raw.
To the indigenous people of the American Southwest, few plants are as versatile as the yucca. Species such as Spanish bayonet (Yucca baccata) and Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera) are of particular value since most parts of the plants are edible and can be eaten fresh or dried and stored for later use. The young flower stems, fruit and seeds all provide a palatable source of nutrition, and the leaves can be eaten steamed or lightly sauteed when still young and tender. It is best to avoid eating the older leaves and roots of yuccas since they contain a high concentration of saponins, which possess a soapy taste and can cause gastrointestinal upset if eaten in large quantities.
- Photo Credit NA/AbleStock.com/Getty Images