Guest Author - Connie Krochmal
From an ornamental standpoint, the prickly pears or Opuntias are admirable species. Yet, there is more to these plants than meets the eye. There is now renewed interest in these species, especially since a study indicated they were useful for treating hangovers. So, this seems like an appropriate time to focus on these multi-faceted plants.
In the landscape, they have many uses from the practical to the aesthetic. One of the foremost uses is as a living fence or hedge. These create an impenetrable barrier. For that reason, they are sometimes used in landscape spots where you want to discourage foot traffic, and would-be thieves.
The prickly pears are an ideal choice for xeriscaping. Whenever you want to limit your use of water and have a low-maintenance landscape, these species can be used to create beautiful gardens.
In colder areas of the U.S., the plants will shrink and go into dormancy in preparation for winter. By doing so, they’re protected from sub-zero weather that could harm the plant tissues when freezing occurs.
Sandy soils are quick-draining, and don’t hold moisture very well. This is true of some other light soils as well. There are a limited number of plants that can grow under these conditions. These are ideal situations for prickly pears.
Concerning their ornamental features, the flowers of prickly pear are particularly beautiful. They resemble those of many other cacti. The color may vary, depending on the species or cultivar being grown. Once you have blooms, you’ll have fruits as well. As they ripen to a rich red, these also add touches of color to the landscape.
With proper preparation, the pads (commonly called nopales) can be made into delicious dishes. In addition to the fresh ones, the canned ones, imported from Mexico, are sold in cans and jars. These are commonly sold here in North Carolina.
Typically, the fruits are sold in larger supermarkets as well. Because they can have tiny, irritating hairs, eat them with care. Peel them, or cut them down the center and scoop out the flesh.
When homeowners begin thinking about planting fruits, they probably don’t consider the prickly pears, which is a pity. These are very tasty. They have long been a favorite among Native Americans. Though we may now think of prickly pears as being western species, this is not really the case. Before Christopher Columbus arrived, the plants were plentiful enough in Florida where they were once used by the Calusa Indian tribe. These Native Americans once inhabited areas of the Florida Keys.
Some nurseries are now selecting varieties of prickly pears that are best for fruit production. The Oikos Tree Crops catalog features some excellent kinds. This mail-order nursery is based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The nursery grows its plants from seeds, and has several species as well as mixed hybrids. According to the catalog, the mixed hybrids have red or purple fruits that are excellent for preserves, jams, and the like. The flavor is very unique, and is described as somewhat like that of a watermelon and a strawberry. The catalog also gives other practical uses for the plant, including the use of seeds as a natural thickener for foods. I would imagine these would be just great for adding to smoothies.
I went through my cookbooks for prickly pear recipes, and the best source by far was “The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Mushrooms, Fruits, and Nuts” by Katie Letcher Lyle from The Lyons Press. It features scrumptious, easy to make recipes for the pads as well as jam from the fruits. Everything you need to know about identifying, and preparing wild plants can be found here along with engrossing details on the folklore as well. She begins with greens and mushrooms, and moves on to fruits, flowers, herbs, nuts, teas, and more. Fully illustrated, this guide can be used when you’re on the trail or in your home kitchen. The author is an award-winning cook, and is the author of nearly a dozen titles.
The Oikos catalog touches on another aspect of the prickly pear—its use as a medicinal plant. Experts now predict that the prickly pear will become as important as Echinacea. Several months ago, researchers reported that these plants are especially effective at treating hangovers. Aside from that, the prickly pear has numerous other herbal uses. Healing Arts Press has released “Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine” by Ran Knishinsky. It focuses specifically on the plant as treatment for diabetes, high cholesterol, and for the immune system problems. This comprehensive guide takes the reader through all aspects of use for various conditions, the plants’ benefits, and how to prepare them along with advice on calculating proper dosage for skin ailments, obesity, and gastrointestinal problems, and much more. He devotes an entire chapter to cooking, and presents 24 different dishes for the fruits and pads. The appendix contains very helpful information on suppliers of prickly pear, and other topics.
In the case of the prickly pear, beauty is more than skin deep.