A Prickly Matter, Week Ending 1/19/2020

I have had mixed luck foraging prickly pear, aka pricklypear, aka eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa). Varieties of prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) appear in almost every state, where it thrives in sandy or shale or otherwise not-water-retaining soil. Particularly on slopes, where the runoff gives prickly pear an advantage over non-cactus-varieties of plant. In some regions, prickly pears are planted for low water landscaping, making them even easier to forage. (But please ask first if it’s not your own landscaping, ok?)

I found prickly pears only once, almost three years ago, in West Virginia when we were looking at land to maybe buy. It was growing in abundance on a hillside built primarily of shale. In other foraging adventures – even in West Virginia and even on shale, like the Fort Ashby assessment – I have been unable to find any evidence of these edible cacti.

Prickly pear pads and unripe fruit - photo from 2017
Prickly pear pads and unripe fruit – photo from 2017

No, I did not harvest any of the prickly pears on that trip. It wasn’t my property and I felt weird just helping myself. If it had been a public space like a park, I might’ve felt differently. Also, the pads were a bit past their prime for eating (May is apparently ideal, when they are young and small), and the fruit was far from ripe.

The biggest challenge – after finding the prickly pears, I mean – is dealing with the plant’s natural defenses. The pads (which are technically stems) are covered in spines (technically its leaves) as well as glochids. These smaller, hair-like spines, are also painful and more likely to catch unwitting humans by surprise, and grow on the fruit as well as the pads. Techniques to deal with spines and glochids include removing them with a knife (particularly larger spines), and scrubbing with a copper cleaning pad to scrape away the glochids. Oh yeah, and always wear gloves!

Once you get past the spiky bits, prickly pears offer multiple edible parts. The pads can be sliced and used like a vegetable (although some might find their okra-like texture objectionable… probably won’t be a hit in my house, honestly).  The flower petals can be eaten too, although taking too many can compromise the fertilization and production of fruit. The fruit turns purplish-pink when ripe, and can be eaten or juiced once the peel and seeds have been removed. Or just eat the seeds as well. They can be collected en masse, dried, and ground into a flour for use in baking.

Additionally, the high moisture content of the pads and fruit can be a literal lifesaver in a situation where water is scarce. 

Don’t prickly pears sound amazing? What’s a frustrated forager to do?

You can find prickly pears pads for sale in some foreign grocery stores, but I prefer RFE – Reverse Foraging Extreme! If you can’t find the food in the wild… bring it to you. Even indoors if need be.

Look at what I found at my local thrift store for just two dollars!

Prickly pear cactus grow kit? Sign me up!
Prickly pear cactus grow kit? Sign me up!

(This is the unintended downside to taking unwanted belongings to the thrift store for donation… you come home with more stuff! So you still have clutter, it’s just new-to-you clutter.)

According to the instructions, right now – the cool, dark month of January – is the worst time to start the kit. But. These seeds were packed for 2019, and I don’t know how long they will stay viable. (For example, some garden seeds, like onions and parsnips, lose potency after just one year.) No time like the present. Luckily I have grow lights to help them along until the sun comes back in full force later in the year.

There were only five seeds in the packet, and the instructions warned they might not all germinate. Hopefully all five will germinate and plants will grow to a size worthy of eating! Stay tuned for future progress posts!

What is the craziest thing you have tried foraging … or the craziest thing you have done to get access to wild edibles?

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