British Cactus and Succulent Society

Highlands & Islands Branch

Travellers' Tales - 1


Some Pictures from the Book

Prickly Pear in Fruit (Texas)

Cactus as Food and Drink

Although Christmas has gone, I can't forget one conversion we had at dinner on the day. "What good are cactus", my Edinburgh friend Bill said, "you can't eat them - can you?". His last word rising in pitch showing he was uncertain. That got me thinking because I knew there were many products based on the 'prickly pear' (Opuntia indica-ficus) alone. The specific name 'indica-ficus' means 'Indian fig' which implies food. But it is only one of about 360 other Opuntias comprising the most numerous genera in Cactaceae, and ranging from Canada in the north, to Patagonia in the south of the Americas. It should also be said that some 16 other Opuntias enjoy the 'prickly pear' title, and two of them are regarded as more juicy and sweet.

"How about cactus candy?", I asked. Nobody had heard of it. It so happened that I had an advertisement showing a packet of it, and what it looked like. "I know that cactus candy is made from the flesh of Echinocacti spp, Ferocactus wizlizenii, as well as prickly pear, all candied in a sugar-solution, and sold as such all over the southern states in the USA". Bill then added, "I remember, you can buy it in some Mediterranean holiday places - I didn't know it was real cactus". The advert also showed some other products such as jam, jellies, sauces, sweeteners. "In fact", I said, "it is used to sweeten ice-cream and cakes, for example". I must find out about those cakes I thought.

"Actually, the majority of cacti are edible", I declared, "if you know how to cook them". In Latin America the pads of some Opuntias are cooked as vegetables. The Mexican salad 'Ensalada de Tunas' is made from shredded Opuntias. Weingartia vorwerkii can be peeled and cooked like a potato. Cactus fruits are staple diet in Northern Brazil. The small berries of Myrtillocactus can be dried like raisins, in fact, the plant has been called the Bilberry Cactus. Some Echinocereus spp are known as 'strawberry cactus' in the southern USA; even a jam is made from them to this day. Then there is the 'Barbados Gooseberry' which comes from Pereskia. Also gooseberry-like in taste are the fruits of Epiphyllum anguliger.

Then I thought about the medical and cosmetic applications of cactus I had read about, but that can wait until another time. "Oh well", said Bill, "Perhaps we shall see some of these things in Tesco or Morrison's some day". "Tell you what", said Sheumas, "we'll get some cactus-candy and sell it at the next Branch show". A chorus of approval greeted that remark.

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