During all our years in the East, would I ever have imagined having a large cactus in my yard? How about two? Yes, I’d grown small succulents in Virginia, like portulaca, and we had a few tiny ornamental cacti indoors, but all I knew of the big guys was from pictures of the Sonoran desert and very infrequent short trips to the Southwest. Arizonan Jean swore to me that saguaro, ocotillo, and prickly pear were beautiful, but I just had to take her word for it. All I could think of was hot, dry, dusty, and spiky.
So it was with suspicion that I looked at the two large prickly pears that stood menacingly in the back yard of our new home in Northern California a decade ago. Oh, they were just minding their own business, sitting there dull green and thick in the sun. But I was wary of getting too close. Jean had told me that prickly pears (“nopales” in Spanish) got their Anglo nickname from the many, many tiny, almost invisible hair-like spines that covered the so-called “leaves”–which looked to wary me more like fat, oval, weird branches (sort of). And the tiny. hairy spines, she said, hurt like the dickens when they got into your hands–or onto other body parts should you be dumb enough to brush against them. What was not to like, right?
But I wanted to get down and dirty in this new place, and that meant getting friendly with the nopales–or getting them out all together, if I really couldn’t stand them. In either case, I’d have to get up close and take my chances.
Growing fast, wide, and high. I quickly learned a few more facts about nopales. For one, they could grow fast, especially if they were watered at all. The nopales (each “leaf” or “paddle” is a “nopal”) would fatten with water and put out new “baby” nopales most of the year. Because our nopales were surrounded by plants (including roses and the orange tree) that needed watering in the dry season, our nopales got way more water than they needed to survive. So I soon found myself having to cut off the new growth, unless I wanted the nopales to take over their portions of the garden.
Trimming (chopping really) new growth. Yes, I quickly became pals with the nopales. I found that my long-bladed hedge trimmers were ideal for trimming off the aggressive new nopales that were making the plant grow higher and wider. To keep from getting impaled by the hairy spines, I deftly developed a technique for pulling our veggie-waste toter right under the area to be trimmed, then chopping off the unwanted growth so that the severed paddles would fall right into the toter. If a severed paddle missed the toter and hit the ground, I turned the hedge trimmer into a sort-of sword, by which I’d stab the paddle and lift it into the toter. Since some of the severed nopales weighed five to ten pounds or more, lifting the paddles took some dexterity, which I’ve developed over the years. Most of the time, I can do all of this without getting close to those nasty spines, but not always. The minimal cost of doing business with nopales.
I also learned that nopales can be self-destructive gluttons (we have a lot in common). The more water you give them, the more they’ll take in and just grow and grow. Whereas the roots of many plants will rot with too much water, the roots of the prickly pear/nopales will efficiently take in all the water they can get. But, just as with gluttonous humans, the added weight can make the plant awkward and unwieldy. Three times in my years with nopales, I’ve gone out on a summer morning to discover a large mass of connected, engorged nopales–sometimes fifty or more–lying beside the plant like a major branch of a tree–and silently accusing me of having caused the catastrophe. So I bring out the trusty toter, chop the fallen “branch” into manageable pieces, and vow to give the other plants even less water. So far, this plan has always turned out well. These nopales incidents are one reason why our water usage in summer keeps going down–with no detriment to the plants.
Third, I learned that nopales flower and fruit from early summer on and into the fall. While the Spanish name “nopales” refers to the leaves of the plant, the Anglo name “prickly pear” highlights the fruit, which are juicy and green-to-reddish and known in Spanish as “tuna.” The herald of the coming fruit are the bright yellow flowers that appear any time from early summer (late May here) through September.
Fourth, the nopales themselves, as well as the flowers and fruit, are edible. Such was my ignorance of nopales during my long time in the East that I did not know until my first year with nopales in the California garden that they bore delectable fruit and beautiful flowers. It was not until a few years later that I learned that the prickly nopales themselves are edible and can even be delicious to a narrowly-educated palate, as mine had been before I moved West. What had begun for me as a fear-shrouded suspicion of these cacti when we first arrived here was gradually becoming an appreciation and fascination.
Cooking and Eating Nopales
In our part of the country, grocery stores routinely carry Mexican food products, and so prepared nopales are frequently found. The nopales have been prepared by being sliced into strips (called “nopalitos”), then boiled, pickled, and jarred in a light brine. The nopalitos are delicious cold in salads or heated in egg dishes and as part of chili recipes. They are mild, green, and have the taste and texture of pickled al dente green beans, asparagus, or green pepper strips.
If you have nopales and want to try cooking them yourself, there are two main concerns:
(1) avoiding the spines, and
(2) avoiding the viscous fluid (AKA slime) that oozes from the nopales during cooking.
I’ve yet to get the knack of making my own nopalitos, but I will no doubt keep trying…. Here I am trying to cut away the spines from two nopales. Note the gloves, the tongs, the long-sleeved shirt, and the sturdy knife:
And maybe one day I might convince Jean that making our own nopalitos would be worth her effort, despite the easy availability of the tasty supermercado version! But I won’t ask her until I’ve succeeded. I’m relying on several websites that give step-by-step illustrated instructions, and that you may want to try, also; here are two such sites:
Preparing and Eating “Tuna”
And here are two sites that show and describe how to prepare and serve the fruit: