Different Types of Prickly Pear

nick musica
Published Oct 08, 2020. Read time: 3 mins

We don’t mean to get prickly, but it makes us upset that so many people don’t realize all the delicious possibilities that lie just underneath a spikey cactus exterior.

So we’re here to try to fix all that, with a page all about the beauty of the prickly pear..

Sticky Situations

Indeed, prickly pears aren’t actually pears at all, but technically the fruit of a type of cactus – specifically, the species known as Opuntia.

The name may come from an Ancient Greek city, but the plant is more regularly found in its native Americas, where the cacti sprout wild over wide swaths of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and all across Mexico.  

Prickly pears are so important to Mexican culture, the plant appears on the country’s coat of arms. (It’s what that fearsome rattlesnake-eating eagle is perched on.) And natives dating all the way back to the Aztecs have used the plants for everything from natural fences – with their spikes acting to pen livestock in – to natural fabric dye.

But it’s in the kitchen where these non-pears truly show off their versatility. Prickly pears have been included in any number of culinary concoctions over the years, from jellies and jams to soups and salads to breads and beverages to tacos and even candy!

And the fruits are just one part of the Opuntia, typically blooming on top of the cacti. The paddle-like structures beneath them, known as nopales, boast a meatier flesh that typically tastes – and is prepared – more like a vegetable.

There are nearly as many different types of prickly pears as there are ways to prepare them, with hundreds of cultivars taking root all over the world.

Some of the most popular types of prickly pears include:

Indian Fig Prickly Pears

Perhaps the most popular type of prickly pear out there, these cacti taste so good, we’ll even forgive their misleading name.

Indian figs actually grow primarily in Mexico, sporting an apple-like texture and an abundant sweet flesh that tastes like watermelon and makes them a popular choice for blending into drinks, jellies, jams and candies or just being enjoyed au natural.

(Their nopales, on the other hand, have more of a string bean-y taste, and are typically cooked in strips and fried with eggs and jalapenos.)

The cacti fruit – sometimes referred to as “tuna” in their native Mexico – come in all types of colors, as well, including yellow, red, pink, white and purple, and all sporting splashes of sweet juice with a hue to match.

Spineless Prickly Pears

Just because they’re spineless doesn’t mean they’re cowards.

On the contrary, these types of prickly pears may well be the heroes of the prickly pear world, being bred without the famous spikes that stop so many humans from easily enjoying their delicious fruit.

Spineless prickly pears aren’t entirely without their prickles, though. The plants still sport some pretty stiff hairs that can cause all sorts of irritation if not removed before eating.

But underneath their slightly smoother exterior, they’re very similar to their Indian Fig cousins, with a firm, sweet and juicy flesh that’s enjoyed in any number of ways.

Purple Prickly Pears

No misleading names here: These types of prickly pears give it all away up front.

They are, in fact, named for their beautiful hue, which radiates not just from the fruit bulbs sprouting on top of the cacti but throughout the waxy flesh of the entire plant.

Inside, they offer just as sweet and crunchy a bite as spineless or Indian Fig varietals.

And although the purple prickly pear is one of the smallest types of prickly pear cultivars, the plants can grow under many conditions, with skin that’s not only lovely to look at but strong enough to withstand frosty weather.

Miniature Prickly Pears

These types of prickly pears may be miniscule, but that doesn’t mean they’re not big on flavor.

There are a few different types of prickly pears officially categorized as “miniature,” including the bunny ear or polka dot varietals, which grow in small, concentrated clumps flush with snowy white spikes; the Joseph’s Coat prickly pear, which pop up an eye-catching pink on top of their creamy green nopales; and the golden beavertail prickly pears, which, at just 2 inches across, are the smallest prickly pears of all.

All three cultivars can be found growing wild throughout the Southwestern United States and most of Mexico, though their pint-sized appeal has made these miniature prickly pears a popular pick for a house plant – especially for those of us with less-than-green thumbs.

But no matter the size of their spikes, all these prickly pear varietals are nothing but the biggest sweeties inside.


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