Harvesting For Health
Prickly Pear Cacti are sacred to some, nourishing for all, and a nuisance to the majority of Western peoples living beside and on top of them. These desert delicacies of the greater Southwest were traditionally cherished and used by Indigenous peoples, and are now being marketed globally as a commodity, found in health food stores and restaurants.
While we love to think there’s a plethora of tunas here in the Verde Valley, they are rapidly withering away and recycled by nature as the seasons change. Cacti pads will soon rest fruitless in the cold beginnings of winter, with only the remnants of hard, black seeds found scattered around complex pack-rat dens.
When the Prickly Pears are ripe (in late summer and early fall), the fruit can be easily plucked from the pads using harvesting tongs – making sure no more than 5% of the fruit is taken off each plant, leaving enough for the other desert dwellers. You can also collect the fruit off of the ground to dye fibers, although it is suggested to harvest directly off the succulents if you plan on eating the fruit. Tunas can be eaten fresh or can be frozen for future consumption. After harvesting, the fruits can be used to make medicinal syrups, ice cubes, juices, salsas, jellies, popsicles, exotic cocktails, and marinades for meat. Although there are many ways to process the fruit, we suggest that the fruits either be cooked down with some water (and then strained and pressed out) or freshly pressed using fruit pressing bags. The fruit is sweet and is loaded with potassium, magnesium, calcium, and antioxidants. Collect when you notice fruit production is at it’s height; and enjoy engaging in the beautiful cycles of regeneration, connection, balance, and beauty. Not only do Prickly Pear tunas satisfy our taste buds, they are revered for it benefiting the immune system, helping individuals with high cholesterol, diabetics, and other imbalances. It is a magnificent real food that can be extremely helpful to our bodies when respected and appreciated.
Recently we crafted a one-piece, Prickly Pear tuna harvesting tong out of local Ponderosa Pine (shown in the picture), and proceeded to successfully harvest and process fruits from the native garden without being pricked. Our tongs not only made harvesting easier and safer, but also helped us avoid splitting the fruits since they have a solid, flat pad that compresses against the soft tuna skins. Give them a try next time you are out harvesting tunas and let us know how it went!
While all types of cacti are becoming more scarce with the expansion of civilization, we can still enjoy their fruits without causing harm to the desert plant. If your environment permits the growth of Prickly Pear, we encourage you to plant potted cacti or individual joints (pads) around your yard/home. With very little amounts of natural water and some care, you can add Prickly Pear (and other cacti) to your life, ensuring a future for these amazing plants.