By Lauren Scott, Arizona Farm Bureau Intern
With its big flat pads that look like hands reaching toward the sky, the prickly pear is by far one of Arizona’s most well know cacti. There are about a dozen different kinds of prickly pear, all under the Opuntia genus. The prickly pear often seen waving from the sides of freeways or standing broadly in front yards is called the Engelmann prickly pear, and it can be identified by its large, flat, green pads as well as its long white spines that can grow up to three inches long. If you don’t already know about this beautiful cactus, keep reading to find out more!
As stated before, the Engelmann prickly pear is the cactus with the big, flat hands that one can see when hiking any mountains here in the valley. Other than on the mountains, the prickly pear can also be found living in front and backyards, on the sides of the roads, and near lakes. This cactus not only calls Arizona its home, but also inhabits the deserts of central Texas, southern California, and Sonora, Mexico. It specifically likes areas that are a bit rocky, and that have sandy or gravelly soil. The prickly pear can live to well over 20 years, and provides shade for little creatures that live on the desert floor.
Every summer, the prickly pear cactus flowers emerge. They are a medium sized flower, a beautiful shade of yellow and only bloom in May and June. Towards the end of the flowers’ life span, little bulbs begin to appear underneath them. These are the fruits of the plant, usually called “pears,” which is where the cactus gets its name. They are ripe by the beginning of July, and can be made into a plethora of different things including: Sauce, jam, jelly, candy, juice, syrup, wine, and pie, among other things. Like the fruit, the pads of the cactus are edible, too. They can be grilled, used in salsa, cut up and put into stews and salads, used in smoothies, and even preserved. Both the prickly pear cactus itself and its fruit can be found in specialty grocery stores, but if you are adventurous, you can go out and pick them yourself. Because of the large spines on this cactus, it is recommended to wear gloves while harvesting any part of the cactus.
There have been a few studies done on the health benefits of the prickly pear, testing how its extract can help certain medical conditions. According to WebMD, by taking one dose of prickly pear, blood sugar can be lowered by 17% to 46%, which would be a measure taken to help with diabetes. Prickly pear cactus has also been observed to help with hangover symptoms such as nausea and dry mouth. There have also been claims that it can help relieve an enlarged prostate, lower high cholesterol, and help with diarrhea, but none of this has been studied or proven true or false.
And, one of our Arizona agriculture farmers is famous for her prickly pear products. Cheri’s Desert Harvest on Fill Your Plate is one of our very special specialty crops farmers. Cheri has provided a variety of recipes for us and highlights some of the health benefits of the prickly pear cactus. “The fruit on the prickly pear plant is so generous we can pick a great amount,” she says.
We also feature Arizona Cactus Ranch, another prickly pear farmer. Arizona Cactus Ranch is located on 40 square miles of desert near Green Valley in Southern Arizona and is surrounded by Engelmann Prickly Pear Cactus. Every August and September, fruits buds from the cactus are harvested to produce a slightly sweet tasting juice that’s 100% pure, concentrated prickly pear nectar with no water, and sugar or preservatives added.
The Owner, Natalie McGee has been living and working at Arizona Cactus Ranch since 1991. McGee highlights on her website, Arizona Cactus Ranch, what customers say such as, “It’s so exciting to take a great tasting product that is highly beneficial to my health.”
The prickly pear cactus is a true representation of the Arizona desert with its heat resistant hands, and love of dry and gravelly soil. Its sweet fruit will continue to be made into the tastiest dishes anyone has ever had, and its wide body will ever grace Arizona’s beautiful and vast desert. Go to Fill Your Plate to find out more about our two farmers that harvest this wild and wonderful crop.