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The Other Famous Cactus of Arizona — The Prickly Pear

This attractive pink-tinged prickly pear cactus blooms at the end of April in Sedona, Arizona.This attractive pink-tinged prickly pear cactus blooms at the end of April in Sedona, Arizona.

While the monolithic saguaro cactus, stretching its arms to the blue desert sky might well be the most popular emblem of the Sonoran desert, you won't see any saguaros around Sedona, at least not in the wild. Most of red rock country is too high in elevation for the saguaro, but not so for Arizona's other well-known cactus, the prickly pear. They're tolerant of many different soils and climates, which is why you'll see it all over the state. Prickly pear flourish in the hot dry Sonoran desert and mingle with the pine trees at up to 9000 feet in the high country.

Each year they celebrate the late spring and early summer with colorful explosions of yellow, white, pink, red and magenta blooms along their distinctive pads. They follow this act by producing plump oblong fruits that are the favorite treat of numerous desert birds and mammals, including some people.

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The flat pads of the prickly pear are actually modified stems that store water in their fibrous interior and conduct photosynthesis, as well as producing flowers and fruit.

They're also the vehicle for the long pointed spines that protect the cactus from some, but not all, potential diners. Prickly pear pads and fruit are the favorite and primary food of the javelina, which seems completely undeterred by the spines. They also have clusters of fine, tiny barbed spines called glochids that easily detach from the pads, but don't easily detach from a bare leg or wagging tail.


Prickly pear cactus fruits turn bright red and form about a month after the flowers bloom.Prickly pear cactus fruits turn bright red and form about a month after the flowers bloom.

There are two ways that prickly pear propagate: The slow way is by seeds, which birds and animals help spread by eating the fruits and leaving the seeds behind in their waste.

If you have a cactus in your yard you want to propagate, and have more decorum than your average javelina, you can also do it by removing and planting one of the pads. You'll want to let the pad "cure" for some weeks before planting, forming a callous on the clipped-off end, then place that end shallowly in the ground.

(For more detailed tips on how to plant the pads, visit www.sfc.ucdavis.edu) The pads, the fruit, and even the flowers of the prickly pear are edible. You can often find the pads in both specialty and mainstream grocery stores around the Southwest, where they're sold under the Spanish name nopales. (When the pads are cut up, rather than whole, they're called nopalitos.) Some people say they taste like green beans, while some assert they taste like asparagus. They're incredibly versatile once they're de-spined and peeled. You can eat the flesh raw in salads, deep-fried to make crispy "cactus fries," or cooked in any variety of ways. (It's helpful to consider how you might use an eggplant - that will give you some guidelines on how to use the prickly pear.) One traditional Southwest favorite is to dice them up and throw them in an egg scramble that may also include chorizo, queso fresco and mild chiles.

These prickly pear fruits are still green and developing as of June 30th.These prickly pear fruits are still green and developing as of June 30th.

The fruits offer nearly as many uses, and the flavor is best described as simply "fruity," since it varies depending on the variety of cactus. You can eat them raw, but the most common use is probably to boil them down to create a flavor-rich syrup that can then be used to make candy and jelly.

Ancient tradition and modern research reveal a number of surprising uses of nearly every part of the prickly pear. Did you know, for instance, that the sticky juice from inside the pads can be used on burns or minor wounds like you'd use aloe vera gel? Interesting research is also being conducted on the beneficial effect that eating the cactus may have on metabolic conditions like diabetes. In some dairies in Mexico, the pads are fed to the cows for the distinctive and highly marketable flavor it imparts to the milk.

The pads can be pounded, dried and woven to create a number of useful items, as the Sinagua people discovered thousands of years ago. Visit the museum at Montezuma Castle National Monument and you'll see sandals, mats and other household items made from cactus fibers. While they don't look particularly useful at first glance, the prickly pear is one of those rare gifts of the desert that supports life in numerous ways in this harsh setting.

 

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