Found from Chile to Canada, the prickly pear comes in a wide variety of colors and tastes. The Mexicans are particularly fond of prickly pear and it’s said that the Triple Alliance/Aztecs wandered for many generations before seeing an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus in a lake. They took this as a sign and built a city named Mexico-Tenochtitlan…meaning ‘In the moon’s navel – place of the prickly pear cactus.’ This is near Mexico City. Check out the flag of Mexico and you will see the plant if you look closely.
Although you can still find a few random pads for harvesting, that time falls more in the spring. If you can’t wait for spring, there is a little company producing delicious Cactus Jerky, something I’m definitely going to try making later. The fruits, however, are widely available in southern California right now. To harvest I would suggest a pair of tongs, or very thick work gloves. I also like to use a fruit picker to reach fruits growing out of reach. Place them into a container and be careful about glochids (very small stickers) releasing into the air as you harvest.
I then bring them home and fill up a bucket with sand. You can rub them between your hands with the sand, or use a stiff vegetable cleaning brush to rub off the stickers and glochids. Then submerge your fruits into a bowl of hot water, as this softens the glochids even more. I have also tried burning off the glochids and then placing into hot water, this method also works.
The photo above is for making fresh juice. Recipe below highlights how to make syrup. The fresh juice is divine, and most of the prickly pear fruits in this area have a flavor much like watermelon. You can see the fruits cut open, glass bowl is where seeds and pulp are scooped into, and then straining out the seeds and using cheesecloth to further separate. The seeds I got last year were quite hard, but this year’s seem softer. I’ll try and sprout them.
Prickly Pear Syrup
Clean fruits of glochids and remove seedy/pulpy center. Put flesh into large pot, mash it, and bring to a low boil. Strain through cheesecloth to separate seeds. Put seeds to the side and add sweetener to make syrup to your liking. Bring to a boil and place in clean glass jars. Refrigerate or boil in open-water bath.