And they taste pretty darn good, too!
That’s right: If you’re ever in a desert and starting to feel peckish, you’re actually in better shape than you might imagine.
Almost all types of cacti produce fruit that is technically edible, while the actual meat of most cacti can also be eaten – after removing the spines, of course.
That’s at least partly because of the cacti’s technical classification as a succulent – a type of plant defined by its “thick, fleshy, water-storing leaves or stems,” which gives them a particularly juicy—and almost entirely harmless—bite.
But that’s not to say it’s necessarily a delicious bite. Indeed, cactus flesh and fruits vary drastically in terms of tastiness, ranging anywhere from delectably sweet to totally bland to downright bitter.
So if you’re itching to dig into one of these spiny plants, there are a few types of edible cactus that might serve you better in the end, including:
Possibly the most popular type of edible cacti – due, in no small part, to its wide growing range, which stretches from New Mexico to Massachussetts – you may be more familiar with this scrumptious succulent as nopales, the name it goes by on many Mexican restaurant menus.
Technically sliced from the Opuntia cactus paddle, these tasty treats actually read like green sweet peppers on the plate – once they’ve been de-spined, of course.
And they’re often treated like sweet peppers in the kitchen, as well, sliced into strips and typically served up fried up or grilled, then set on top of everything from ensaladas to enchiladas and rounding out everything from soups to side dishes.
Just slightly further south of the Prickly Pear’s territory is the Sonora Desert, with its resident Saguaro Cactus.
These towering masterpieces are the classic cactus most people envision when they hear the word: the prickly green stick-figures hanging around in the background of so many old school Western movies.
But their fruit is much sweeter than their reputation, traditionally used to make such sticky treats as jam, jelly, syrup and even wine.
The beautiful white flowers that blossom from these succulents – mostly at night, when it’s actually cool enough out to risk exposing their pedals – are mostly responsible for the sugary flavor. But the saguaro’s meat can also be eaten, revealing a shockingly red pulp that also rocks a subtly sweet flavor and is studded with nutty-tasting black seeds.
Another Arizona native, the Organ Pipe Cactus resembles its Saguaro cousin, but isn’t quite as grandly sized, and comes with smaller “arms,” which tend to grow closer to their base.
But about halfway up the cacti’s trunks are the source of their yumminess: clutches of lavender flowers and bright red fruits, known as Pitahaya Dulce.
If the name wasn’t enough of a giveaway, the fruits are quite sweet, and have been traditionally used, much as the Saguaro, to make sugary delights like jam, syrup and wine.
Small and spineless, this cactus may sound like a coward – but its taste is truly heroic.
Little barrel cacti have been a longtime food source in the desert, with meat that can actually be eaten raw, a rarity in the cacti world. Plus, their juicy pulp inside makes for a great hydration option – especially if you’re stranded and starting to see more mirages than you may like.
Moving away from the Americas, Hoodia Gordonii is primarily grown in South Africa.
The cacti are particularly small and spiky, but de-thorning the fruit is certainly a worthwhile task. The flavor is extremely refreshing, like a cross between cucumber and mild berry – and the cactus rightfully finds itself at the center of much South African cuisine, typically cooked, like its prickly pear cousin, in strips that get friend or grilled.
From the prickly pear to the prickly apple, these cacti grow primarily in South America, including in Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay, though they’re also known to sprout up around the Caribbean, especially in Jamaica, where they were first studied by their namesake, a botanist named William Harris.
In terms of eating them, the cacti have proven quite useful – and tasty.
Their gorgeous white flowers, which blossom at night, are edible and subtly sweet. And their nickname-sake, the prickly apple fruits they produce, are little bright yellow balls that slice open to reveal a mild but tasty and firm pulp.
It just goes to show that you can find something delicious to eat, even in the most unexpected of places.