NATURAL LA JOLLA:
The prickly pear, in the Opuntia genus, is a group of cactus with many uses. It is native to this area, and throughout the Americas, where it grows wild along roadsides and on hillsides. It's a great forage fruit for many animals and for us, too. Indian fig (Opuntia ficus-indica) is the most commonly eaten variety of prickly pear (there are dozens of Opuntia varieties).
Prickly pear makes an effective natural fence, growing in clumps and spreading quickly into a tangled sprawl. Flat, broad green pads grow in an asymmetrical pattern, with new pads budding off existing pads. The pads, or nopales, feature in Mexican cuisine; they can also be found in the grocery store and have medicinal and purifying properties. The spines are razor sharp and cover the entire plant. Prickly pear has two types of spines, the first are long and easy to remove; the glochids, which are fine hairlike spines, are difficult to see and get easily embedded in the skin.
Each pretty flower produces one fruit (or tuna), which may be orange or more commonly bright red when ripe. The fruit is also covered in spines and so picking them is tricky — I've used barbeque tongs to pull them from the plant. Preparing them for juice is time consuming, but worth the effort. Once the spines have been removed (washing the figs in a sink filled with cold water helps), the fruit can be cut in half or quarters, covered with water and cooked slowly in a pot.
Once the skins, seeds and spines have been strained, the result is a bright red juice that is unique in taste but a bit like raspberry with a twist. The juice may then be used for jelly or as a special drink mix (think Prickly Pear Margaritas) but should not be consumed in excess at full strength because it has cooling effects on the body. You can buy the cactus tunas in the store at an exorbitant price, but you may try picking them yourself! October is a good month for the fruit.
Since prickly pear are resilient, cold tolerant and drought tolerant, they make excellent landscape plants – plus they have the added bonus of producing a unique and delicious fruit.
— Kelly Stewart is a marine biologist with The Ocean Foundation and writes about the flora and fauna of La Jolla. She may be reached by e-mail: NaturalLaJolla@gmail.com