Forage Albuquerque

In season through

Native range:

Prickly pear cactus with blooms and new growth
Photo by ken_mateik on iNaturalist

Prickly pears are a signature of the Southwest landscape, abundant in deserts and gardens alike.

In late spring, new pads are a delicious vegetable called nopales and a core component of Mexican and New Mexican cuisine.

Cactus pads
Freshly harvested nopales.

They're tart and slimy, like the similarly succulent verdolagas. I love them fried in tacos, but there's countless ways to prepare them in Mexican cuisine. Slime can be reduced by thorough cooking.

Frying prickly pear pieces, or nopalitos
Frying nopalitos (diced nopales) with cornstarch. They naturally stick to the breading!

Most prickly pears protect themselves beneath a dense cover of spines. We're lucky to have several commonly grown near-spineless cultivars, which greatly simplifies preparation. Use tongs to remove a fresh, growing pad from the plant. Remove spines by laying the pad flat on a cutting board, running a sharp knife over it to scrape off the pad's nodes, and cutting off the pad's edges. Note that apparently spineless pads often still have a few tiny spines or "glochids."

A native, spiny cactus
We have dozens of native prickly pears, all of which produce beautiful flowers and barbed, painful spines.
A native, spiny cactus
Still more painful than their spines is the devilishly difficult task of telling the different species apart!

In the fall, plants produce fruit called tuna. Fruit is edible on all larger prickly pears, though some species produce sweeter fruit than others. Fruit can also be used for dye.

Our most common spineless variety is the Texas blue prickly pear (Opuntia cacapana 'Ellisiana'), which grows delicious nopales that are as spineless as prickly pears get. It is often confused with Opuntia ficus-indica 'Burbank Spineless', which is limited to warmer climates. O. cacapana is native to Texas and Mexico, where the spineless 'Ellisiana' probably appeared as a natural mutation. In Albuquerque, an established Texas blue prickly pear produces abundant pads but little fruit.

Cholla flower buds are also edible and similarly tasty, but more difficult to de-spine.

Prickly pears are among the easiest plants to propagate! Pads often root and grow after falling off the plant. To increase survival rate, give a pad two weeks to callous, then plant it slightly in the ground.