Here’s another useful plant to be able to identify: the prickly pear cactus. There are many species of prickly pear (Opuntia) but the one most common around my area is the coastal species, Opuntia littoralis. Both the pads and the fruits of this species are edible, and easily available.
Prickly pears grow as a bush of pads, which are actually stems called “joints”. These pads are, in most varieties, covered with clusters of spines, although spineless cultivars do exist.
In some places, they grow into trees. Here is a picture I took in the Galapagos Islands this spring, of a Santa Fe Tree Opuntia. Most species, including all of my local prickly pears, grow low to the ground.
The plants bloom in early summer, and right now they are covered in ripe fruit. These fruits, known as tunas, are delicious. In fact, all cactus fruits are edible, although the flavor varies from excellent to barely palatable, depending on the species.
The fruits are ripe when they are purple and soft. The problem is getting them. For one, the tunas are covered in tiny spines called glochids. These are annoyingly painful, and will enter through skin if you so much as touch them. They will then fall off the cactus and stick in you. I speak from experience when I say this is to be avoided.
The whole bush is covered in larger spines, which are more firmly attached but very sharp and painful. The pads are edible once you peel them, though, and can be cooked like any other vegetable.
Once you get to the fruit, I recommend holding it with a fork and slicing it in half. You can then scoop the flesh out of the skin, avoiding the glochids altogether. The flesh is sweet, reminiscent of the closely related dragonfruit. It has also been compared to raspberry.
The tuna is filled with small but hard seeds, but I found these to be no barrier to my enjoyment. That barrier came when the first glochids began to itch five minutes later. Took me half an hour to get the buggers out with tweezers…
I have since eaten the fruit again, loved it, and got off much easier since I knew to be more careful.
~The Homesteading Hippy