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The Versatile Prickly Pear

The prickly pears are among the most useful cactus. They have many culinary uses. These have long been used as a human food. Naturally, it is essential to carefully remove the spines from the fruits and pads before eating. The seeds of prickly pear fruits are dried and ground to make a flour. This is a favored food among Native Americans.

A fruit syrup can be made by boiling the fruits of the prickly pear. If desired, the saguaro fruits can be added when preparing this dish.

Not all stories have happy endings. One tragic true to life tale in New Mexico during 1999 concerns the consumption of unripe prickly pear fruits, which aren’t recommended as a food. Two men were hiking in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. After running out of water and with little hope for rescue, they ate the fruits when they became dehydrated. Following that, one of the men began vomiting, which was apparently caused by the fruits, and became convinced he was dying and facing an agonizing death. He reportedly asked his hiking companion to kill him. The companion served a prison sentence for the killing.

All parts of these plants are useful. The fruits were used as a food by the Calusa Indians in the Florida Keys before the arrival of Columbus in the New World. The prickly pear fruits have a higher content of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, calcium, and potassium than apples. The ripe fruits can be eaten raw. They can also be made into preserves, jams, sherbets, and desserts. The juice of the fruits can serve as a food coloring and a dye. The fruits can be dried and made into a candy.

The pads have often been chopped and sautéed as a side dish. These are also preserved in a brine much like a pickle. Vinegar and spices can be added. As a pickle, it can be used as a condiment or added to other dishes, such as salad.

The pads can be parboiled and then fried much as one does eggplant. The pads can also be prepared as a soup and pancakes. The sap from the plants can be extracted and used as chewing gum.

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