The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polyacantha).

¡Qué Santa Fe!

The Versatile Prickly Pear Cactus

by Alana Grimstad

Prickly pear is a member of a cactus family that is native to the United States, Mexico and South America, although it flourishes in many parts of the world. It’s grown in gardens throughout the Southwest and enjoyed in a variety of cuisines and in cocktails.

Local prickly pear enthusiast Steven Brack, who is a member of the Cactus and Succulent Society of New Mexico, has taken forty trips to Mexico and hundreds of additional trips to other areas in North and South America to explore this particular cactus. He is especially fond of growing prickly pear cacti in his yard. They’re really low maintenance, he says, and in late spring produce gorgeous flowers in almost every color except blue. “They make a great landscaping plant,” he says. “We have hot, dry weather and sandy, rocky ground, and they’ll thrive in that with little water.”

Brack not only appreciates how prickly pear cacti look in his yard but also likes to eat them. Preparing the cactus begins with carefully taking off the skin, the spiny outer layer. The thin, flat pads (also known as nopal and nopales) resemble ping-pong paddles. Pads that have been diced and boiled can be stir-fried and topped with green chile, salsa and cilantro. Nopalitos, pads that have been cut up and prepared for eating, pair well with tomatoes and onions, making them perfect for salads. Brack says you can cook the nopalitos the same ways you would prepare asparagus or green beans.

Prickly Pear Cactus
Tiny barbed hairs (glochids) grow on the cactus pads; the fruit (pears) grow out of the top of the pads.

Prickly pear can be eaten raw, grilled or broiled, and it produces wonderful juice, syrup and jam. It is one of only a handful of plants that are both a vegetable (the green pads) and a fruit (the pears that appear during the summer). Although the plant’s stems and pads are edible, the crown jewel is its tasty fruit, called the tuna in Spanish. When the tuna is processed, it yields a vibrant purple liquid. Brack says you can use the juice like you would any other fruit juice.

Prickly pear purée, syrup and other products are available online. Farmers markets often sell the budget-friendly cactus, and fresh whole or prepped (chopped and bagged) prickly pear is sold in many grocery stores. For bottled or canned nopalitos, check the Mexican food aisle.

Prickly Pear Cactus
The prickly pear cactus, which can live for more than twenty years, blooms in the spring.

It’s no wonder that devotees are enthusiastic about prickly pear: it’s high in fiber, antioxidants, calcium, potassium and carotenoids. Moreover, the versatile plant is appropriate for vegan, gluten-free, paleo, keto and low-carb diets.

Restaurants throughout Santa Fe occasionally feature dishes made with nopales and nopalitos. At Coyote Café, owner Quinn Stephenson likes to cook with regional plants and has offered dishes such as Prickly Pear Aguachiles Cevicheon. Stephenson, who also owns Santafecafé, is enthusiastic about using prickly pear purée in his cocktails. “It’s all about that color,” he says. “It catches your eye from across the room.”

Try Santacafé’s Cactus Heart cocktail recipe.

Alana Grimstad

Alana Grimstad is an experienced, award-winning journalist, writer and photographer based in Santa Fe who loves to meet interesting people and is honored to share their stories.


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