Pricklish but popular
Each has a story, perhaps one of a family leaving home and of passion for a fruit that could not be lived without.
But all we can know for sure is that the prickly pear cactus—ugly, feral devil that it is—would never have been tolerated if there wasn’t something wonderful about it. And, of course, it’s the firm, juicy fruits themselves. Indigenous Americans enjoyed them for thousands of years before the Spaniards came, and when they tasted the fruit, the prickly pear’s fate was sealed: It returned to Spain. It found its way to Italy, to Africa, and eventually the world—only because it was loved.
In California, many of the roadside cactus tangles likely came with migrants from Mexico, where Opuntia ficus-indica originated. Of more than 200 species in the Opuntia genus, ficus-indica has enjoyed lasting popularity for its sweet, baseball-sized fruits, which range from light yellow to deep magenta. The U.S. Department of Agriculture keeps an Opuntia collection near Fresno, a genetic library and public lending pool for breeders and growers. Curator Gabriela Romano oversees the 250-plus species and varieties that grow here. She has tasted all their fruits, and above all others she prefers the elongated, yellow fruits of ficus-indica for eating fresh; dark red varieties of the species are best for rendering into a juice rich in antioxidants.
Many nations grow prickly pears commercially—and the pads, or nopalitos, are harvested, too. In California, ficus-indica’s fruits occur in markets, but highway fruit hunters may best enjoy the feral bounty. The prickly pear season runs from autumn well into winter, and should you collect any, be warned: The fruits’ bristles—tiny, hairlike spines called glochids—are nasty. Grab with a towel. At home, dunk and slosh the pears in a basin of water. When safe to handle, slice them open.
And there it is: the glistening, sweet flesh that won the prickly pear its way around the world.