The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) is a plant full of surprises. Surprise: You might have it growing on your property. Surprise: it’s got all manner of virtues as a food and medicine. You actually can consume the pads, flower petals, and also fruits – but all of them, except the flowers, need processing of some sort. If you neglect that part you’ll be in for yet another surprise.
The pads of the prickly pear are known in Spanish as nopales, and I often find them in international cuisine market where they are fully cleaned and prepared for eating. In the wild, they are delicious, but also are full of glochids, which are these minute hairs that need to be cleaned off. The glochids can get into the skin or lips, or even worse, on the tongue, and are almost impossible to get out. It is guaranteed that as you try to get them out of your skin, you will painfully discover more. The fruit also has many rock hard seeds which you have to spit out. Native people ground up the seeds using a mortar and pestle to consume them; they are edible once ground. The flower petals of the prickly pear, which have a slimy consistency, make a delicate yet filling food, something quite substantial for a flower.
The whole plant is mucilaginous, which means, as the word “mucous” implies – it’s slimy. At first, one might be put off by that quality; however an herbalist learns to deeply value this asset, necessary to nourish healthy gut flora. It is a textural sensation almost entirely missing from our modern diet. The lack of mucilage in the American diet may actually be linked to constipation and slow moving elimination, which of course leads to the body’s toxification. Mucilage coats the digestive tract, and as its nature suggests, it is cooling and soothing. From a holistic perspective, that means that it would be helpful in the case of a burn, inflammation of any kind, or any hot cellular processes such as ulcers. Applied topically, it sooths sunburn, making it an essential medicinal plant for desert or coastal tribes. Once you understand its principle action, you can stretch your imagination when the need arises.
Probably the most efficient way of harvesting the pads in the wild is to use two sticks as a tong, or fashion a chop stick and cut a pad off at its base. Do not lay your hands on one of these things! (It is not the visible thorns that will get you, it is the near-invisible glochids.) From there you can roast it on coals to burn off the glochids and cook the cactus pad. Once this is done, you can cut the outside skin off and eat the inside flesh, which is much better when softened by cooking than it is raw, although you can eat it raw if needed.
The fruits are delicious to eat raw, although they also require careful removal of the glochids. In a primitive or survival situation, this takes creative thinking: think sandpaper, whether that’s a rock or your knife edge. I highly recommend fashioning yourself some crude forest chopsticks to handle these, or wear very thick gloves if you have them. The fruits as well are sometimes sold in the store with the glochids removed, but nothing beats foraging your own wild food!
As always, don’t eat any plant you haven’t properly identified. The general rule for cactus is if your cactus has milky sap, don’t eat it.