Prickly Pear Cactus

This staple of the desert is a versatile gift of nature, but handle with care.

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Prickly Pear Cactus with Yellow Blooms

To write a short article about prickly pear cactus is like writing a one-page summary of War and Peace.

In Mexico and points south, this cactus is cultivated to yield food, candy and a natural diabetes medicine. A famous red dye, cochineal (co-chin-ee-ya), is harvested from white scale insects that afflict its skin. With thorns burned off, the plants even become succulent cattle fodder. And nothing creates a more impenetrable security barrier than a prickly pear hedge.

Prickly pear is returning from obscurity to take its rightful place in our gardens. It's not just an attractive ornamental, it yields culinary delights in the kitchen. But before you dive in to cactus cuisine, it helps to know the terminology.

The entire plant is called "nopal" and individual stem segments are "nopales." Tender young stem segments are the edible parts, called "cladodes" or "nopalitos." These are chopped and used to make more than 200 dishes from stews to salad pickles.

In Mexican gardens you'll find the top half of paddles are pruned off at an odd right angle. This encourages development of more numerous cladodes, which are picked at just a few weeks old while still thin and before fibers develop inside.

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