We are approaching peak prickly pear season.
Called "tunas" in Spanish, the deep, purple red fruits are usually ripe in late August and early September, says Sonya Norman, public programs coordinator for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Removed of spines and strained into juice, prickly pear fruit is often used to make syrups, jellies, candies and more. You can also eat them fresh, Norman adds.
Prickly pear fruit (and pads) is just one of many wild desert foods long used by Indigenous people. If you are harvesting prickly pear fruit this year, do so with respect, leaving fruit on the cactus for desert critters. Don't exhaust the supply. You should also only harvest in your own backyard or on private property with permission. We wrote a whole story about wild desert foods and what you need to know about them if you want more information.
"If it's private property, I'll go knock on the door and say, 'Are you going to be harvesting your fruit?'..." Norman says with a laugh. "Most people are like, 'Sure, go ahead.'"
We chatted with Norman and Carolyn Niethammer, the author of "The Prickly Pear Cookbook," about what to do if you find yourself with access to an abundance of prickly pear fruit.
1. Check for peak ripeness
Once you've determined that you have permission to harvest prickly pear fruit, take a small knife to slice one of the fruits or use tongs to squeeze one.
"They should be a deep purple color, and if you cut it, it should bleed a little," Norman says.
That's for the native Engelmann prickly pear. These tend to be thigh-to-chest height with distinct spines, Norman says.
2. Prepare for the spines
Harvesting cactus fruit is all about dealing with the spines. Norman recommends taking a paint brush or creosote branch and brushing the fruit to get rid of some of the fine spines that cover them — those are called glochids, by the way.
Also, take tweezers and expect to use them at some point.
"You're going to get a sticker," Niethammer says. "It's going to happen. Just get some tweezers and take it out. Don't make an issue of it."
She also suggests wearing pants and keeping your distance from the cactus while you're harvesting so that none of the spines find their way onto your legs.
You'll want to use tongs to harvest, and ripe fruit should come off with a gentle twist, Norman says. Take a clean bucket to catch them as they fall from the cactus.
If you wear gloves, be prepared to trash them when you're done, as they're likely to attract tons of tiny spines, Norman adds.
Niethammer says that about a dozen fruit will make about one cup of juice, blended and strained.
Also, side note, watch out for snakes.
3. Hose everything down
After you've collected an adequate amount of fruit, Norman suggests using a hose to fill your bucket of fruit outside of your house. And then use the tongs to lift them from the water into a new bucket. Empty the water bucket and then maybe repeat the process, depending on how clean the fruit looks.
4. How to process the fruit
Norman walks through three different ways to prepare your prickly pear fruit for consumption.
Option one: Put the fruit in a bag, freeze them and then to defrost, let them sit in a colander. Norman then uses a potato masher to press the defrosted fruit and extract the juice. Then strain that juice through a screen mesh sieve. If you plan to use the juice fresh or refreeze it, run it through a cheesecloth. Also, if you're going to keep it fresh in the fridge, scald the juice to kill any bacteria.
Option two: Put the fruit in a big pot, fill it with water so about half of the fruit is covered and then simmer that. You can slice the fruit to help it break down better. After that, you put your fruit in a colander, use a potato masher and strain the juice.
Option three: Put a splash of water in a blender, add your prickly pear fruits, chopped in half, and then blend until everything is pulverized. Repeat as necessary, using the blended juice instead of water in future batches, and then strain everything.
This final option is Niethammer's favorite method for dealing with prickly pear fruit because of how easy it is — just note that you're also blending the skin into your juice mixture, so the flavor will be subtly different. Norman describes the texture as grittier than what the other methods produce.
As you can see, whatever method you choose, straining well is key.
Desert Harvesters suggests using an old T-shirt or pillowcase to strain instead of cheesecloth.
You can also opt to eat the fruit fresh, Norman says. Just slice the top and bottom ends off and then peel the skin off.
Niethammer says she has heard prickly pear fruit compared to watermelon, honeydew and even cucumbers.
"It has an underlying flavor profile that is kind of a wild, dusky flavor," on top of a more fruity, melon flavor, she says.
For additional information about preparation methods, check out this article by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.
5. How to use it
At this point, a desert foods cookbook like Niethammer's might serve you well.
Niethammer says you can use prickly pear fruit for everything from barbecue sauce to baked goods.
"Once you've got your juice, your imagination is the limit," she says.
Add some to lemonade or make a fancy, fizzy juice of your own creation. Add some to a smoothie or make jelly. Here is a story with a few other ideas.
Niethammer cautions against downing a huge quantity of prickly pear juice all at once. Take it slow. See how your body reacts.
"When you harvest, the volume of fruit that you harvest, probably 25 percent of that will end up being rendered into juice," Norman says. "About 75 percent is pulp and skin and spines and stuff you're going to throw out."
Pro tip: Instead of just tossing the prickly pear remains, Norman suggests putting it in your yard. You might even plant a new prickly pear or two.
"My mother grew up in the midwest in Illinois, and she used to say the smell of apples means fall," Niethammer says. "But to me, the smell of prickly pear is such a seasonal fragrance, and of course the color is wonderful too. And I just get such a thrill just going out and picking something ... It's such a part of where we live, and I just feel like it makes me part of the desert."
Editor's note: This story was originally published in August 2020.