Prickly Pear and Cholla History and Use

Learn about the historical use of prickly pear and the steps to prepare these tasty succulents.

| January 2018

  • Prickly pear cacti act as host for the small insect Cochineals, which produce a natural red dye carmine.
    Illustration by Edith Rewa Barrett
  • “Cattail Moonshine and Milkweed Medicine,” by Tammi Hartung showcasing creative ways people are using these plants today.
    Cover courtesy Story Publishing

Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants(Storey, 2016) by Tammi Hartung a longtime herbalist and organic farmer, tells little-known and captivating stories of how humans have relied on these plants for millennia to nourish, shelter, heal, clothe, and even entertain us. Hartung has been growning and working with herbs for more than 30 years and is a frequent teacher and lecturer. She and her husband cultivate more than 500 varieties of herbs, heirloom food plants, and perennial seed crops on their organic farm in Colorado. The following excerpt is from the “P” section.

Prickly Pear and Cholla Opuntia and Cylindropuntia Species

An herbalist named Peter Bigfoot used to say that if you ever tangle with a cholla, your body will have such a memory of the experience that you will forever after be able to walk through the desert blindfolded and barefoot, and your body will instinctually avoid any contact with this plant and its ruthless barbed spines. It amazes me how humans have been able to look beyond the prickly nature of these and other Opuntia relatives to find so many uses for them.

All Kinds of Cactus

There are hundreds of species of Opuntia across the United States, Canada, and Mexico; all are succulent plants, and most favor living in arid conditions. But there are some that are winter hardy, and others, like nopales (O. ficus-indica), that grow in subtropical climates.

One barbed brother.

Chollas (Cylindropuntia spp.) are upright with narrow, fingerlike branches that serve as the leaves of the plant. They are mostly wild-harvested for their flower buds and fruits, which are eaten. To gather them, though, harvesters must contend with cholla’s long spines, each of which has tiny barbs at the end. Once the cholla buds are picked, they are rolled around on a wire mesh screen to knock off the spines. When the spines are gone, the buds are ready to boil in water for 15 minutes. The buds cannot be eaten raw, because they contain high amounts of oxalic acid, which causes throat and kidney irritation; boiling removes this compound. When the buds turn dark green, they are ready to eat. They taste somewhat like okra.

The cultivated cousin.

The tender, nearly spineless pads of nopales (or nopalitos) are cultivated as a vegetable crop on farms and in gardens across Mexico and in the southwestern United States. Their “leaves” may be pear-shaped pads or narrow, fingerlike branches reaching into the sky, and the plants themselves can grow almost 9 feet tall. Even though nopales have fewer spines (and sometimes none at all), they do have glochids, tiny stiff hairs that stick into your skin. All members of the Opuntia clan have them, and they’re found at the base of the spine, or where the spine would normally be. They are miserable to remove! They are so small and light colored that they’re difficult to see and get hold of with tweezers.

Pretty, but prickly.

Prickly pears are the name more generally used to describe all other species of Opuntia with pear-shaped leaves. Although these are usually wild plants or varieties used in the landscaping trade, the flower buds, pads, and fruits are still fully edible but can be used for other purposes, too.

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