Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Nowhere is this most true than with pricklypear cactus, which lures the uninitiated with its luscious, bright-red fruit. What the novice gardener, adventurous chef or wild collector may not know is that this genus, Opuntia, is unique in the cactus world. Not only does the plant bear wickedly sharp, inch-long spines, at the base of each spine cluster is a nest of microscopic glochids – fine, hairlike, barbed spines that detach easily and become embedded in the skin. Cactophiles detest these minute glochids more than the big spines because once they’re embedded in the skin, clothing or gloves, they’re nearly impossible to see – much less remove.

Ripening Pricklypears

The fruit on the far left was the first to bloom and is perfectly ripe compared with the progressively lighter and younger pricklypears on the right.

Photo Credit: Maureen Gilmer

Groundcover Opuntia

This low-growing species of Opuntia may be better for small gardens. While its fruit is also downsized, it compensates with quantity

Photo Credit: Maureen Gilmer

Spiny pricklypear fruit closeup

Always be careful around cacti – spineless or nearly spineless pricklypear plants can still produce wickedly armed fruit!

Photo Credit: Maureen Gilmer

Red Pricklypear flesh

When a pricklypear is cut open, you can see the small BB-like seeds scattered within the fruit and appreciate its intense color (that also served as a pre-Columbian dye).

Photo Credit: Maureen Gilmer

White Pricklypears

In US and Mexican markets, pricklypear fruit is green and sold with the spines already removed.

Photo Credit: Maureen Gilmer

Just as the paddle-shaped leaves of this cactus bear spines and glochids, so do the large, sweet fruits, known as tunas in Mexico. When mature, these fruits are about the size of a human fist and are completely red or orange with no green left at the base. There’s just a short time before the birds start to feed on them, so aficionados must be prompt in gathering. But above all, pick carefully! And whenever possible, choose the big-leaf forms for their generously-sized fruit. Finally, remember that even if the plant is “spineless,” the fruit will still bear glochids!

The best way to pick pricklypear fruit safely is to arm yourself with extremely thick gloves and long-handled barbecue tongs. If you wrap the tong tips in duct tape, the metal ends are less likely to puncture the fruit as you work it free of the plant. You’ll want the fruit to remain intact so no glochids manage to enter the edible parts during harvest. For the same reason, use a flat basket or container for collecting, and set the fruit side by side – but not too close together – so they won’t pick up glochids from each other.

In the kitchen, there are many methods for removing glochids. Some require crushing the fruit – skin and all – then passing it through a sieve. However, there’s no guarantee that the hairlike spikes will be completely separated out, and this method prevents you from enjoying the fruit whole or sliced.

Perhaps the most pain-free way to remove glochids is with an open flame (which is probably how the Apache and other Native Americans did it long ago): Hold the fruit with metal salad tongs so you’re sure to have a good grip. Gently and carefully run a butane torch up and down the sides of each fruit. You’ll see and hear the glochids sizzle away. Another alternative is to carefully hold the fruit over the open flame of a gas kitchen stove or an outdoor grill. Once the glochids are gone, you can safely peel the fruit by hand. If by chance glochids still remain and stick you, remove them from your skin with duct tape or tweezers and a magnifying glass.

While crushed fruit use is limited to sauces, salad dressing vinaigrette and jams, there are dozens of ways you can prepare the fresh, peeled whole fruit.: Slice and add to salads, wine coolers and punch, or use it for vivid color in any dish you want to add a kiwi-like flavor to.

A more recent trend is to create pricklypear margaritas by infusing high-quality silver tequila with pricklypear fruit. Follow this simple recipe:

Pricklypear Margaritas

(Serves 2)

Ingredients

  • High-quality tequila
  • Ripe, peeled pricklypears
  • 2 ounces frozen limeade
  • 1½ ounces Cointreau®
  • Insert the fresh fruit into a quart-size mason jar, and fill with tequila. Tightly replace the lid and store for at least two days in the fridge, so the liquor and fruit permeate each other.

    Remove the fruit, mash it, then run the mash through a sieve to catch the seeds.

    Put the mash into the blender with 4 ounces of the infused tequila, the frozen limeade and 1½ ounces of Cointreau. Blend until slushy, and serve – then find a nice place to relax on your patio and enjoy!