Both the fruits and the pads of prickly pear cactus are edible. The plant grows in clusters up to 10 feet in diameter and from 3 to 4 feet high. The pads have both spines and glochids--little nasty hairs that have a barb on the end. Some animals eat the cactus, spines and all, and others remove the spines.
Both the fruits and the young pads are eaten by people. The fruit is dark pink nearly purple when ripe. The skin contains glochids, which must be removed by scrubbing or burning them off. The edible fruit is next to the rind, which you can access after scooping out the seeds. The fruit and juice are used in drinks, candies and jellies. Juice the scrubbed fruits by covering them with water and cooking. When the fruit is soft, remove from the heat and mash. Drain through a double layer of cheesecloth. The young pads (nopales) are eaten cooked. Remove any thorns and the glochids. You don't have to peel the pads, simply cut them into strips and cook. Occasionally, cleaned prickly pear fruit and nopales are available in the produce section of the grocery store.
Javelinas or collared peccaries, are a relative of the pig. They roam the deserts of Arizona, as well as Texas, New Mexico and South America down to Argentina, munching prickly pear pads and fruit as they go. Other wild animals that eat prickly pear pads, or the fruit, include rabbits, pack rats, beach mice and desert tortoises. Usually only the young pads are consumed, but in harsh conditions when food is scarce, the mature pads are eaten as well.
Cattle ranchers feed their stock de-spined prickly pear pads. The spines are burnt off and used as an emergency feed, or during the winter when fresh greens aren't available. Cattle forage and eat the pads on the range, although there is the risk of blindness from the sharp needles. Other livestock that are fed, or eat prickly pear cactus, include horses, sheep and pigs. Ostriches, which are raised for their feathers and sometimes their eggs, are fed the pads as well.
The glochids look like tiny soft hairs on both the pads and the fruit. They are extremely irritating and difficult to remove from the skin. When harvesting prickly pear, wear leather gloves--or better yet, use tongs. The glochids will stick in the leather. The next time you pick your gloves up, the glochids may transfer to your hands and fingers.