Photo courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Cactus-fruit harvesting season has just about arrived, so Iâ€™ve been checking my equipment . Although there are some fruits available earlier, I think the first little cold snap makes the fruits sweeter, so I usually wait until mid October to start harvesting.
This is one of the crops that I do not have room to grow in my own garden, so I prowl around looking for feral plants from which I can harvest. Itâ€™s not rare for people to give me permission to harvest cactus on private property, either. There are a lot of people who donâ€™t consider cactus fruit something they would like to personally handle.
Growing pad cactus, or opuntia, couldnâ€™t be much easier. Opuntias tolerate a bit of cold weather and an occasional snowfall, and will also do well where the winters are very mild, so their geographical range is fairly wide. Almost any piece of a pad that still has a bit of green in it will root pretty easily, and although the plants will tolerate very dry conditions, a opuntia that is well watered and fertilized will grow very quickly, and may reach as high as 10 feet in height within three years. Iâ€™ll have to admit that Iâ€™ve grown opuntias more frequently as a defensive perimiter plant than as a deliberate food crop, and itâ€™s always been very successful as a green security fence. Like any other cactus, too much hand watering in the winter isnâ€™t appreciated, and over-watered cactus can quickly rot.
Altough all pad cacti will produce fruits, the big, gray-green, almost spineless varieties are the major variety both for cultivation and for feral plants, and these are the ones that produce the biggest and most desirable fruits. I have a small-pad opunzia growing in the garden, and it makes delicious little dark-red fruits, but that little crop pales in comparison to the grand abundance that is the main cactus fruit crop.
There are a few different ways to get rid of the fuzzy little spines on the outside of the fruits. Some people rub them while wearing thick, canvas gloves; commercial growers have spinning machines that use little rubber nubs to rub off the spines. What I usually do is wear soft leather gloves and use a sharp knife to peel away the skin, leaving the non-spine-infested pulp from the center of the fruit. I can clean a fruit in about a minute that way.
Once the spines are gone, some people go further and separate the numerous seeds from the flesh. I do that for my wife, but for myself, Iâ€™m happy to crunch the seeds along with the pulp. My favorite cactus-fruit recipes include granola in the morning, or with ice cream for lunch or dinner. Yummy!