Harvesting Prickly Pear Fruit: When And How To Pick Prickly Pear Cactus

Opuntia (prickly pear) with ripe fruits on clear sky background
Image by WitR

By Bonnie L. Grant

You may have seen them in your local produce market – those plump pinkish red fruits with characteristic scars from thorns. These are heat-loving prickly pear fruit. Southern foragers can simply go out into their wild regions and pick the fruit, but when do you harvest prickly pear fruit? Foragers interested in trying the fruits for themselves should read on for a few tips on how to pick prickly pear cactus and what to do with them once you have a bountiful harvest.

When Do You Harvest Prickly Pear Fruit?

Prickly pear fruit is found in warm regions of North America but even northern denizens can get a taste of this unique fruit in specialty markets. Prickly pear fruit is a traditional food of the indigenous population of arid, warm regions. The chubby little fruits are excellent eaten raw, stewed, canned or prepared into preserves but first you have to have a plant for picking prickly pear fruit. Harvesting isn’t difficult, but you need to take some precautions to protect yourself from the long spines and even more insidious glochids.

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August is when the fat cactus pads of the prickly pear are adorned with ruby red fruits. Most expert gatherers recommend picking prickly pear fruit with a deep ruby color and no green remaining. These fruits will be sweetest and juiciest with the best flavor and will also remove easily.

You should have long sleeves and thick leather gloves to protect yourself from the spines. The tiny, almost invisible glochids are the more dangerous than the large spines. A single brush against the fruit and you may get hundreds of invisible, fine spines imbedded in your skin. Bring along some duct tape just in case this happens. Use it to remove the spines and save yourself a lot of time and irritation.

How to Pick Prickly Pear Cactus

There are a couple of schools of thought on the method used for harvesting prickly pear fruit. Most foragers use a pair of tongs or something similar to simply twist off the fruits. Ripe fruit should twist off easily.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that a small butane burner with a wand is the best method. Use the tool to scorch off the pear’s thorns and glochlids. Using a burner makes harvesting prickly pear fruit less fraught with peril, as the lack of spines renders the fruit safe to grab.

Always leave a few fruit for wild animals and birds. Place fruit in a basket or bag but try not to layer them too much, crushing the bottom fruit.

Prickly Pear Fruit Harvest Storage

Fruits will store in refrigeration for a couple of days but they are best used fresh. Store in a single layer of your crisper. If you have a bumper crop, you may choose to store them in the freezer. This will break down the fruit but it is still useful to make juice or a preserves. Frozen fruit can be mashed and strained to remove any seeds, skin and stray thorns. The juice will go bad in just a few days so should be used immediately or refrozen.

Common uses for a good prickly pear fruit harvest might be as a syrup in desserts, fermented into a delicious vinegar, or even in a tea. The juice also adds interest to many common alcoholic concoctions and enhances meats as a salsa or chutney.

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