Cactus fruit, also know as cactus pear or prickly pear, comes from the nopal cactus.
Native to Mexico, the nopal cactus is sometimes called prickly pear cactus, but the plant’s Latin name is Opuntia. In Spanish, cactus fruit are called tunas. The fruit grows on the rounded edges of cactus paddles and has a thick skin covered in small spines. Once cut open, you’ll see they have a soft, juicy meat inside with lots of dark, round seeds.
How to cut and peel cactus fruit
Using a sharp knife, cut the two ends of the fruit, making sure to cut all the way through to the flesh. Stand the fruit on one side and make a vertical cut through the skin (it’s OK if you cut into the flesh a bit). With your finger or the tip of the knife, lift a corner of the skin where you made the vertical cut and use your fingers to peel the skin away from the fruit. Discard the skin.
In our house, the most common ways we consume cactus fruit is fresh or agua fresca de tuna roja or frozen cactus fruit margaritas. I much prefer the taste of the red fruit over the green, as the red is much sweeter. The juice can even be turned into prickly pear sorbet!
The seeds are completely edible, but if you don’t like them, you can just spit them out. When cactus fruits are used in juices, the seeds are always filtered out.
When are cactus pears in season? How do I pick them out?
Cactus fruits are normally harvested from July through October, but it’s common to find them in grocery stores in the U.S. as late in the year as December depending where they come from. Sometimes they also appear in stores after they’re in season because they’ve been frozen.
Red and green cactus pears are the most common in the U.S., but there are lots of other varieties and colors that exist in Mexico.
To pick out ripe cactus fruit, you’ll want to look for a few signs: firm skin, and no signs of decay such as bruises, soft spots or mold.
Red cactus fruit or tunas rojas, when ripe, should be a deep red color, with little or no green on the skin.
Green cactus fruit or tunas verdes won’t change color much as they ripen, like the red variety. The color green can range from very light green to medium green, getting slightly lighter in color as they ripen, and the fruit inside is white or very pale green. When they start to over-ripen and decay, sometimes the skin turns a bit yellow or palid.
A tip on handling cactus fruits
When you buy cactus fruit at the grocery store, most of the time the spines have already been cleaned off and the fruit is safe to touch with your hands. However, sometimes there are very small spines that are difficult to see with the naked eye, so I suggest that you use tongs or a plastic bag to handle them in the store rather than your bare hands.
If you get home and find that your cactus fruits still have small spines, use rubber gloves to protect your hands and a kitchen tool such as a potato brush to gently scrub them under running water and remove the spines. You won’t eat the skins, but it’s a horrible feeling when you get a spine stuck in your hand that you can’t see to remove!
Cultivation and consumption in Mexico
Cactus fruit typically grows wild, and some people plant them in home gardens. They’re mostly cultivated in the central Mexican states of Estado de México, Guanajuato, and Queretaro.
Prickly pears are usually eaten fresh, as shown in the video here with the skin removed and cut into chunks or slices just like any other fresh fruit.
There are also several uses of red cactus fruit in traditional Mexican gastronomy. One of those is a fermented alcoholic beverage called colonche, which is a sweet, red and effervescent drink made from the boiled and fermented juice of the red prickly pear. Because of the natural high sugar content of red cactus fruit, it ferments quickly. Another type of alcoholic beverage made with red prickly pears is called chiquito, which is liquor made with the cactus fruit and cinnamon.
Another traditional use of the fruit is called queso de tuna, which is essentially a dessert similar to ate or fruit paste, made by boiling the fruit pulp until thick and sticky and air drying.
Melcocha is another traditional use for cactus pears—it’s a type of jelly made by boiling the pulp until thickened so it can be spread on bread or tortillas. And red cactus fruit can also be made into a sweet compote.
This is what prickly pears look like while still growing on the nopal cactus:
Can I plant the nopal cactus to grow my own cactus pears in the U.S.?
Yes! If you live in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 3b through 11, you can grow this type of cactus outdoors. They thrive most in hot, dry areas and can grow up to 20 feet tall and spread up to 15 feet wide.
You can grow Opuntia cacti from seeds, but if you don’t live in an area where it can thrive outdoors, it will require a lot of extra care. When planted outside and once established, they can tolerate drought conditions for several weeks.
You can learn more about the plant hardiness zones on the USDA website.131