The spiny, rounded fruits of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) are referred to as prickly pear, tuna or sometimes cactus pear. Botanists believe between 150 and 200 species of prickly pear cacti exist, all native to arid habitats across North, Central and South America. These cacti are among the most recognized desert plants, as they develop flattened leaves that resemble paddles. The leaves bear spaced clusters of spines, and large, showy flowers form on leaf tips during the summer.
Several species of prickly pear cactus plants grow in sunny, dry gardens across the United States where winters aren't too cold, such as in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 8 and warmer. The greatest diversity of species occurs in the frost-free lands of the American tropics. A few species grow naturally across the Central U.S. and into Canada and survive extensive cold. While all plants in the Opuntia genus flower and yield dry or fleshy fruits, far fewer species' fruits are edible.
Cactus Pear Fruit
After insect pollination, the ovary at the base of a prickly pear cactus flower swells into an oblong oval fruit. This "pear" ripens to any variety of colors depending on species, from yellow to pink or more frequently a shade of red. Tiny clusters of spines dot the fruit just like on the leaf pads. When ripe, the cactus pear fruit plumps with a water-rich, sweet, gooey, orange to green flesh with lots of hard white or black seeds. Some species of prickly pear cactus develop dry fruits with no flesh.
Eating Cactus Pear
Across Latin America, especially Mexico, people eat cactus pears fresh and chilled in the refrigerator. Once the spiny clusters are cut away, peel the skin off and eat the cold flesh like a fig, swallowing seeds. Alternatively, slice the cactus pear into halves and scoop the juicy gelatinous flesh out with a spoon. The flesh tastes like berry or watermelon. Cactus pears also make good preserves, syrups and jellies. Some fruits are fermented into alcohol.
The juices of both the leaves and fruits of prickly pear cacti contain antioxidants potentially effective in warding off or treating certain cancers, according to a 2005 research report published in "Nutrition Journal." Raw cactus pear flesh is rich in dietary fiber and water and low in fat. A snack provides vitamins C and A and numerous B vitamins. Minerals like magnesium, copper, calcium and potassium also benefit consumers.
- Purdue University; Native Cultivars of Cactus Pear in Mexico; C. Mondragon-Jacobo, et al.; 1996
- "Nutrition Journal"; Cactus Pear: A Natural Product in Cancer Chemoprevention; Da-ming Zou, et al.; 2005
- Learn2Grow: Opuntia
- Self Nutrition Data: Prickly Pears, Raw
- Flora of China; Opuntia; 2007
- Mother Earth News; Cactus: It's Edible; Joanadel Hurst; 1984
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images Zedcor Wholly Owned/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images
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