The condition plant of Texas, prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) Is grown for many motives — animal fodder, fuel, ornamentation and also for its sweet, edible fruit. Also called “tunas” or “Mission cactus,” more than 150 species of opuntia grow around the planet. The cactus pears you discover at the grocers are likely to be Indian fig (Opuntia ficus-indica). With fragrant yellow or orange flowers growing out of flat green pads, these prickly pears thrive in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 8b to 10b. They are easy to harvest and even easier to identify.
Cultivated to make sweet fruit and nearly thornless pads, Indian fig includes a shrubby or treelike growth habit, reaching 10 to 15 feet at maturity. In spring, showy orange or yellow flowers give way to roundish 2- to 3 1/2-inch long fruit which ripens from yellow to crimson. The fruit is covered with a skin, dotted with clusters of short bristles — called glochids — which can irritate skin and must be removed prior to eating. Under this tough exterior is sweet, juicy flesh speckled with hard black seeds.
Cactus pears are ripe when they turn a heavy, nearly magenta, red. Beyond the simple colour test, two more signs of peak ripeness are birds pecking at the fruit and fruit falling to the ground. If you select a pear and see green flesh at the wound, then the fruit isn’t quite ready. The glochids deserve your attention because they can detach in the fruit through harvest, lodging on your skin and creating discomfort, irritation andalso at times, allergic reactions. To be on the safe side, wear leather gloves and select the fruit with metal tongs.
Prickly pear cactus fruit saved at 43 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit will keep for at least two weeks — lots of time to discover your favourite means of consuming it. To prepare the fruit, then cut the ends off, slit the skin down the center with a knife, and peel away the skin. Remove the seeds. To protect your hands, wear heavy leather gloves or hold the fruit with metal tongs. Cooked cactus fruit puree makes a refreshing addition to salad dressings and yogurt, cubed fresh pears with lime juice are great in fruit cups, and prickly pear juice can be made into drinks, sauces and syrups.
Like most desert plants, prickly pear cactuses thrive in full sunlight and favor well-drained, sandy loam soil that is slightly alkaline — a pH array of 6.1 to 7.8 is ideal. Although prickly pears are highly drought-tolerant, they do need moisture during warm spells to make the biggest, juiciest fruit. Tolerant of a wide range of elevations, prickly pears grow anywhere from sea level to more than 15,000 feet, but benefit from some protection against cold winter winds. Through the flower- and fruit-producing interval employing a balanced fluid retains the plants healthy. “Burbank Spineless” is a nearly spineless cultivar great for backyard gardening.