Introduction: Preserving Prickly Pear

Picture of Preserving Prickly Pear

Prickly pears, also known as nopales for the pads and tunas for the fruit, are truly one of the world’s most amazing plants. They have what seems like a hundred beneficial uses and require next to no additional water or care. In some countries, they go a long way towards feeding the populace with a minimum of cost.

Of the Opuntia genus, they belong to the Cactaceae (or cactus) family. Although native to the Americas, they also flourish in Africa, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East. There are dozens of varieties, and between them all they can survive in a wide range of soils and climates (although they are typically associated with hot, dry areas with poor, well drained soil). They are very drought tolerant and some varieties can even withstand severe freezes.

Both the pads and fruit are delicious and highly nutritious. They can be eaten raw, cooked fresh, pickled, dehydrated, or made into jelly, candy, juice and wine. They also have many other uses, including a wide range of medicinal functions, a low-cost animal feed, a water-proofing agent for paints and plasters, predator-proof fencing, shampoo, pigmentation, and even fibers to use in woven objects like baskets. Now do you see why we love them so much?

Throughout this article, we’ll be addressing issues such as proper handling and propagation, the various uses of this miracle plant, as well as ways in which to cook and preserve the fruit and pads so that you can enjoy them year-round.

For more information, view How To: Prickly Pears

If you're interested in seeing more of our how-to guides, please visit VelaCreations.com. You can also follow our projects through the blog or our books.

Step 1: Tools & Materials

Picture of Tools & Materials
  • Prickly pear pads and fruit
  • Tongs
  • Machete or long knife
  • Gloves (if desired)
  • 1 or ½ pint jars
  • Large pot
  • Potato masher
  • Colander
  • Nylon or cheese cloth
  • Canner
  • 3 gallon container
  • 2 ½ gallon container
  • Wine bottles, with corks (and wax to seal, if you have it)
  • Airlock
  • Hydrometer
  • Refractometer
  • Funnel

Step 2: Handling

Picture of Handling

If there’s a downside to prickly pears, it comes from the “prickly” parts that gave them their name. Not only do they have long, vicious spines sticking out of the pads, they also have small, fur-like clusters that are called glochids. While these little hairs may look harmless, they are not. They’ll brush against your skin and get stuck there like tiny needles. There are several spineless varieties of both the pads and the fruit, but even these will sometimes retain their glochids.

When we go prickly pear picking, we go with a long list of rules. The first is “Never use your hands to handle the plant”. The most recent addition, care of our 7 year old, Leo, was “DO NOT lick the fruit juice off your tongs” - he will tell you that glochids in your tongue are no fun.

In general:

  • Always use tongs to handle the fruit and pads.
  • Make sure you do not let the handles of your tools come in contact with the plant’s glochids.
  • Thoroughly wash any tools and containers after use.
  • When you first start out, wearing gloves might be a good idea.

To pick the fruit:

  • Wait until the fruit is very ripe. It should be slightly soft when squeezed with tongs.
  • Grab the fruit with your tongs, and give it a slight twist and tug.
  • If it does not come free fairly easily, it is probably not ripe yet.

To pick the pads:

  • Hold the pad you wish to remove with your tongs.
  • With a machete or long knife, slice or hack through the joint between 2 pads.

To remove the spines and glochids:

  • You can scrape them off with a blunt knife, while holding the pad at its base.
  • You will then want to slice off the parts that contained the prickly bits, just to make sure.
  • Alternatively, you can hold the fruit or pad over a fire and burn them off (it goes without saying - that you should be careful around fire and use heat resistant tools).
  • Many of the fruit recipes do not require that you remove the prickles, because boiling will dissolve the spines and glochids.
  • The younger pads are the most tender and have relatively few spines, so these are recommended for cooking.

Step 3: Health Benefits

Picture of Health Benefits

Prickly pears contain high levels of vitamin C, B-family vitamins, magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron, copper, and dietary fiber. They are also high in organic compounds, such as flavonoids, polyphenols, and betalains, all of which are supposedly very good for you.

They also make an excellent feed for animals, especially for those requiring additional calcium (like egg layers or dairy producers), or that do not produce their own vitamin C (like guinea pigs).

Several studies have been conducted examining the medicinal properties of nopales, and it has been suggested that they can help in the treatment of all kinds of conditions, including diabetes, cholesterol, stomach problems, inflammation, cuts and bruises, sunburn, windburn, constipation, and colds. Although results of many of the studies are not yet conclusive, they do seem at least positive. In fact, there has been enough evidence that nopales help lower blood sugar by increasing the body’s ability to absorb insulin and release it slowly, that it is recommended that people with diabetes consult with their doctor before consuming nopales on a regular basis, just to avoid issues with their dose of insulin.

Step 4: Eating It Fresh

Picture of Eating It Fresh

The tuna (fruit) can be eaten fresh and raw. You’ll need to peel it first, being careful to avoid any glochids (if present). While the seeds are edible and harmless, many people prefer to remove them. There are many different varieties of prickly pear, and depending on which ones you have, the fruit can taste similar to watermelon, strawberries, honeydew melons, figs, bananas, or citrus.

The pads can also be eaten raw in salads, but are usually cooked first. They have a flavor similar to green beans.

  • The new, young pads are best for cooking. They are usually more tender and tasty, as well as having less spines.
  • Hold the pad at its base and scrape with a blunt knife to remove spines and glochids. Or hold them over a flame to burn the prickly bits off.
  • With a knife, cut off the edge of the pad and slice away any areas that may still have spines.
  • Cut the pads into strips or chunks.
  • They can be a little slimy, which is great for thickening soup or for use in leftover rice.
  • If you wish to remove the sliminess, boil them for 5 minutes and then discard the water. Then cook them in whatever recipe you wish.
  • You can fry or sauté them, add them to omelets, rice or soup.

Step 5: Jelly and Syrup

Picture of Jelly and Syrup

This recipe makes two and a half pints, so scale it according to how much fruit you have.

Tools:

  • Tongs
  • Knife
  • 5x ½ pint jars
  • Large pot
  • Potato masher
  • Colander
  • Nylon or cheese cloth
  • Canner

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups prickly pear juice (4 lb fruit)
  • 1/2 cup lime or lemon juice
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tbsp low sugar pectin (for syrup, you don’t need this and you can reduce the amount of sugar, to taste)

Instructions:

  1. Place empty jars in a water bath and heat until sterilized.
  2. While the water is heating, wash the fruit.
  3. Using tongs to hold them, cut the fruit into quarters.
  4. Put about an inch of water in a large pot and add the fruit.
  5. Heat for about 20 minutes or until the fruit is soft.
  6. Mash with a potato masher.
  7. Strain through a colander to get all the big stuff out.
  8. Strain the juice through nylon or cheese cloth (a little at a time, as the cloth clogs up easily).
  9. Add the lime to the juice and bring to a boil.
  10. Mix the pectin and 1/4 cup of sugar together and add to the juice.
  11. Bring to a rolling boil, stirring constantly.
  12. Add the rest of the sugar and bring back to a boil, stirring constantly.
  13. Boil for 1 minute.
  14. Pour into sterilized, hot jars, up to 1/4” from the rim.
  15. Wipe rims and sides with a clean cloth.
  16. Finger-tighten lids.
  17. Submerge cans in a canner full of hot water (with 1” or 2” of water more than the height of the jars).
  18. Boil for 15 minutes (we are at 6300 ft, so less is needed if you’re at lower altitude).

Step 6: Wine

Picture of Wine

This recipe makes about 2 ½ gallons of wine. You can scale it according to how much fruit you have.

Tools:

  • 3 gallon container
  • 2 ½ gallon container
  • Wine bottles, with corks (and wax to seal, if you have it)
  • Airlock
  • Large pot
  • Potato masher
  • Colander
  • Hydrometer
  • Refractometer
  • Funnel

Ingredients:

  • 35 lb of fruit
  • 6 cups of sugar
  • 1 packet of yeast

Instructions:

  1. Wash the fruit.
  2. Using tongs, cut the fruit into quarters.
  3. Put about an inch of water in a large pot and add the fruit.
  4. Heat for about 20 minutes or until the fruit is soft.
  5. Mash with a potato masher.
  6. Strain through a colander to get all the big stuff out (the rest will be strained out as the wine is continually racked off).
  7. Add the sugar to the juice until it is 23 brix (using the refractometer) or 1.095 specific gravity (using the hydrometer). This makes a stout red wine, and if you don’t want it as strong, you can add slightly less sugar.
  8. Once the juice has cooled, add the packet of yeast and pour into the three gallon container. Cover the lid with some cloth, so that air can escape, but bugs cannot get in.
  9. After one week, siphon the liquid into a smaller container (so that there is no air space). You want to avoid picking up the dregs at the bottom of the 3 gallon container.
  10. Add an airlock to this smaller container (you can drill a hole in the lid, insert the airlock and then silicon around the join).
  11. After two months, rack it off again. Be careful to leave all sediment.
  12. Continue to rack it off every couple of months until it is clear.
  13. Pour it into sterilized wine bottles, almost to the top of each bottle.
  14. Put a cork into each bottle. You can seal it with wax if you want.
  15. Lay the bottles on their side, with the cork downhill from the bottom, so that the corks get wet and swells up to seal properly.
  16. If you can, wait a year before drinking!

Step 7: Candy

Picture of Candy

Please note that we haven’t actually made this candy. We wanted to add the recipe here partly because it sounds awesome, and partly so that all your prickly pear possibilities are listed in one place (you really can’t help but use alliteration when talking about this plant!). We got the recipe (and photos) from http://dailydishrecipes.com/cactus-fruit-prickly-pear-gum-drops/ and have not altered it at all. Nor did we add the tools needed for this to the list of tools above.

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup ripe prickly pear cactus fruit, peeled, pureed and de-seeded
  • 1½ cups plain no sugar added applesauce
  • 2 teaspoons of powdered pectin (I used Sure Jell)
  • 2½ cups sugar, divided
  • Sugar for dusting each gumdrop at the end

Instructions:

  1. Spray an 8” x 8” glass baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Then set it aside.
  2. In a large saucepan, combine the pureed and de-seeded prickly pear cactus fruit with the applesauce.
  3. Whisk the pectin and a ½ cup sugar together in a small bowl. Once mixed well, add to the cactus fruit.
  4. Clip a candy thermometer onto the side of your saucepan and bring your mixture to a boil.
  5. Whisk in the remaining 2 cups of sugar.
  6. Bring everything to a boil and stir constantly until your mixture reaches 225°. (this took me less than 5 minutes)
  7. Remove from saucepan from the heat. (and shake your arm from all that stirring!)
  8. Pour the hot mixture into your 8x8 prepared glass dish.
  9. When slightly cool (about an hour), sprinkle sugar on top.
  10. Allow to set several hours (this is going to vary depended on your weather, humidity outside/inside. I recommend letting them dry at least 12 hours. (Seems like 12+ is the magic number so plan ahead)
  11. Once the candy is mostly set, enough to cut, cut your mixture into 1-inch squares, or use a mini cookie cutter sprayed with non-stick cooking spray to make hearts, flowers, whatever - though if you plan to use anything other than just a sharp knife, you might need to let them dry even longer, though they will dry better when cut.
  12. Dredge in some sugar and allow to dry another 6+ hours or overnight on a piece of parchment paper. Store covered for up to two weeks.

Step 8: Pickled Pads

Picture of Pickled Pads

This recipe makes 6 pint jars. You need about 1/3 lb per jar.

Tools:

  • Medium sized pot
  • Canner
  • Jars

Ingredients:

  • 2 lb prickly pear pads
  • 3 c. vinegar
  • 3 c. water
  • 6 tbsp. salt
  • Dill (if you don’t have dill, substitute with an herb of your choosing)
  • Garlic cloves (1 for each jar)
  • Jalapeno peppers (1 for each jar)

Instructions:

  1. In a water bath canner, place jars to sterilize.
  2. Hold the pad at its base and scrape with a blunt knife to remove spines and glochids. Or hold them over a flame to burn the prickly bits off.
  3. With a knife, cut off the edge of the pad and slice away any areas that may still have spines.
  4. Cut into slices and pack into sterilized jars.
  5. Put one clove garlic, 1 jalapeno pepper and sprigs of dill into jar.
  6. Boil water, vinegar and salt until salt is dissolved.
  7. Fill jars with boiling brine to within 1/2" of top.
  8. Finger tighten the lids.
  9. Boil for 20 minutes (we are at 6300 ft, so less is needed if you’re at lower altitude).
  10. Let cure for at least 6 months for extra flavor.

Step 9: Dehydrated Pads

Picture of Dehydrated Pads

If you have an abundance of pads and want to put some aside for later in the year, drying is a possibility. Dehydrated foods often retain a lot more of the original nutrition than canned foods. Be aware that you will need to marinade the nopales first, otherwise they are somewhat tasteless dried.

Tools:

  • Dehydrator

Ingredients:

  • Prickly pear pads
  • Flavorful marinade, such as soy or balsamic vinegar.

Instructions:

  1. Remove the spines and outer edge.
  2. Cut the pads into 3/4 inch strips.
  3. Boiled them for one minute.
  4. Add to marinade for 20 minutes or so.
  5. Dry them until brittle. See here for our instruction on how to build a solar food dehydrator.

Step 10: Further Uses

Picture of Further Uses

Waterproof paint or plaster

The gel inside the pads is a great waterproofing agent. Chop up the pads in a concrete mixer or chipper and add the gelatinous substance to a lime plaster or paint. This has been used for a long, long time on old adobe buildings in Mexico.

Predator-proof fence-line

Because prickly pears are both prolific and prickly, they make a great deterrent to predators on any fence-line. We have planted single pads every three feet around our perimeter fence. Next year, those single pads will have made several more, which we will then remove and plant so that there is a cactus every foot. Another year will see those plants grow taller and wider, so that the whole fence will have a prickly pear presence. The plants will eventually grow to form an impenetrable hedge about 3-6 feet in height. The more it grows, the harder it will be for any predator to get through, and we’ll have a huge supply of fruit to use in jellies and wine.

Animal feed

Prickly pears make a cheap and easy to grow food for animals, as they need no additional irrigation or nutrients. They are especially valuable for animals that require extra calcium, like egg-laying poultry, or for animals that do not produce their own vitamin C, like guinea pigs. They also add a sweet flavor to the milk produced from dairy animals that consume them. Make sure that prickly pears do not constitute more than 50 % of an animal’s feed, or it will develop diarrhea. Depending on your variety, it is best to burn the spines off before feeding them to animals.

Mosquito repellant

In central Africa, the gel from the pads is used as an effective mosquito repellent. The gel can also be added to stagnant water where mosquitos breed, whereby it smothers the larvae and interrupts the life cycle of the dangerous insect.

Shampoo

Nopales can be used as a shampoo that leaves your hair soft and shiny. Cut up a pad into small chunks and then add it to a blender with some water. Strain the pieces out and use the liquid on your hair. Rinse thoroughly after one minute.

For cuts and burns

The gel from a pad can be used in much the same way as aloe vera. Just apply the gel topically for instant relief.

Dye

If you are looking for a natural red dye, look no further than the prickly pear fruit. The red fruit (some tunas are green or yellow) produces a pigment akin to beets.

Flour

You can dry the seeds and then grind them for a tasty gluten-free flour.

Toothpicks or needles

The spines are very strong and sharp. They can be used as toothpicks, needles or pins.

Baskets

If you pound and dry the pads, you can extract the strong fibers to use in any weaving project.

Step 11: Propagation

Picture of Propagation

Prickly pears can be started from seed, but it is a very slow way to get them going. It’ll be four to five years before you see any fruit. However, if it’s the only option available to you, for whatever reason, simply sprinkle the seeds in a shady garden bed and keep the soil moist (not wet) until they germinate. The actual plant wants full sun, but they transplant easily, so you can always move them.

The best way to start your prickly pear farm is to cut pads off existing plants from your local area and then plant them in the ground. Choose local varieties that are adapted to your specific climate.

When we cut a pad, we generally leave it a couple of weeks for the “wound” to callous before planting it. This avoids any chance that the wound will rot in the ground. On the other hand, lots of people around us remove the pad and plant it straight in the ground and don’t seem to have any problems. If the ground is fairly dry, you shouldn’t have any problem, but if it’s wet, leave the wound to callous.

Planting is easy; just make a small hole and plant the pad vertically (using tongs to handle them), with between ½ and 1/3 of the pad below ground. We have now planted hundreds of pads and have had very, very few failures.

Let the new prickly pear form several new pads before you start to harvest them. It’s best to prune pads to form a central trunk up a few feet before letting it branch out for the best fruit production. Prickly pears have been known to live over 20 years.

Comments

pskemp2 (author)2016-06-26

Excellent job velacreations! There is a cactus-type plant in NC we call prickly pear. Much smaller but I'm gonna try your method with it.

velacreations (author)pskemp22016-06-26

there are lots of species of prickly pear, but most produce fruit, some are better than others, but all of them can be used!

Attmos (author)2015-11-09

Maybe a description of what prickly pears are?

Attmos (author)Attmos2015-11-09

What they look like and how to find them.

RachelK27 (author)2015-11-08

absolutely fantastic! I learned a lot and am totally sold! Definitely trying ALL these myself!

giorgia14 (author)2015-11-06

Great description!! You did a very thorough work!

AndrewD50 (author)2015-10-28

Tons of great information, so many options. Thank you

bhavik zure (author)2015-10-20

thanks for useful information, my mom used to cook some recipes many years ago. to remove glochids she were directly hold fruits over fire which burn all glochids.

We usually don't worry about removing them, because when they cook, they dissolve and become soft.

demonfox24 (author)2015-10-19

Now when you pick a pawpaw
Or a prickly pear
And you prick a raw paw
Next time beware
Don't pick the prickly pear by the paw
When you pick a pear
Try to use the claw
But you don't need to use the claw
When you pick a pear of the big pawpaw
Have I given you a clue ?

Team Z (author)2015-10-19

Wow, such a lot of information. Thank you for sharing. Never heard of this before.

LenoraH (author)2015-10-18

Kudos.

ArticAkita (author)2015-10-18

wow! lots of handy info! thanks!!! I was so baffled by the mystery of nopales & how they grew! what a very detailed instructable!

jessyratfink (author)2015-10-18

This is amazingly comprehensive! I had no idea you could use this for so much. :)

About This Instructable

8,324views

83favorites

License:

Bio: Off Grid Homesteading Guides, Tutorials, and Books. http://VelaCreations.com/blog - latest updates.
More by velacreations:Cider From ScratchPreserving Prickly PearMealworm Farm
Add instructable to: