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This local cactus is edible, but don't harvest it

A stand of prickly pear cactus overwintering on Bound Brook Island in Wellfleet.
Elspeth Hay
A stand of prickly pear cactus overwintering on Bound Brook Island in Wellfleet.

One fall, I lead a foraging walk with visiting fellows from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I pointed out Prickly Pear Cactus — a plant that I’ve heard you can eat, but that we’re not allowed to harvest in Massachusetts, because here it’s considered an endangered species. Poet Eduardo Martinez Leyva spoke up, and said the tradition of eating prickly pear cactus is alive and well with his relatives in northern Mexico.

“You put them in a colander, and of course, you gather them with either like a — my grandmother used to use like a handcloth, or like a washcloth and then she would put them in a colander and she would run water over them and then using the same handcloth kind of like scrub them, scrub them, scrub them, scrub them,” he says.

Of course, prickly pear cactus pads and their fruits are covered with hundreds of tiny prickers called glochids that look like little hairs, and if they get into your skin or digestive track, it hurts. So before you start cooking, these need to be scrubbed or roasted off of both the cactus pads and their fruits.

“Tuna is the prickly pear and the nopal is the actual green leaf,” Eduardo explains.

Eduardo says both of these parts of the plant are popular in traditional Mexican cooking, but that's because there are more cactus pads, the most common dishes are made with the green nopales after they’ve been scrubbed, scraped clean, and cut up.

“They cook it for like with scrambled eggs in the morning they sort of chop it up and make it into this sauce, like a very spicy sauce, they call it nopales with salsa roja, so it’s like a red sauce that they make,” he says, “And often when someone is like a vegetarian and they have like a cookout they will make a taco with just the leaf, like they will grill the leaf like nopal that they add cheese or something to it.”

You can also make soup with nopales or smoothies or cut them up and add them to a salad. They have a texture somewhat similar to okra and a tart, citrusy taste. As for the pink or sometimes orange or purple or even yellow prickly pear fruits, Eduardo says these were his grandmother’s favorite.

“She would have them in the household for her to pick them up and eat them as if they were like an apple or stuff like that.”

When you eat them this way, Eduardo says the flavor and texture are almost like a melon and cooked down these fruits used to make all kinds of things.

“Ice cream, almost like a sorbet, ice pops, teas, and yeah the syrup for margaritas,” he explains. “The interesting thing is some folks will say that if you make kind of a juice with the prickly pear it’s a cure for hangovers so you have your libation on a Friday and then have your prickly pear juice on a Saturday to liven yourself up.”

Eating both parts of the prickly pear cactus is associated with all kinds of health benefits — they’re high in fiber, magnesium, potassium, calcium, antioxidants — and the plant have long had an important place in Mexican culture. An ancient Aztec legend holds that the cactus was a symbol — that one day Aztec priests would see an eagle devouring a serpent on top of a cactus plant and then they would know that was the place to settle down. Tenochtitlan means ‘the place of the prickly pear cactus’ and today most of us know it as Mexico City.

“So it’s definitely a traditional food and depending on who you ask very sacred.”

Interestingly, Eduardo says he’s seen both nopales and tunas for sale at the Provincetown Stop and Shop. Various species of prickly pear cacti grow in dry sandy places all over the world — from Jamaica to Italy — and people use them not only for food but also for herbal remedies and hair and skin care. Despite the fact that we can’t forage them locally now, we can buy them and eat them. And since they’re endangered, maybe, raising awareness about the fact that they are edible and versatile is a first step to beginning to spread them.

Learn more about the prickly pear endangered status here.

This piece first aired in March 2022.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.