Mid-spring is one of my favorite parts of the year in beautiful southern Nevada. Certainly, there are the obvious elements. This is the time when fruits have developed on leafy trees, many vegetables are ripe in the garden, and roses have gone insane in shades from deep magenta to pure white.
While I beam with delight when I go out into my lush, yet water-efficient, back yard, another part of my desert landscape is even more astounding. From the middle of April to about the middle of May, all the cactuses around my house go into reproductive mode. They produce flowers in a range of colors. These are short-lived blossoms, but many of them survive long enough to become fertilized and produce fruits. While it may sound odd to think of cactus fruits, these are just the plant’s seed packages, as with any other. Prickly pears are especially prolific. Prickly pears are the ones with green flattened stems, which are not leaves. The leaves long ago morphed into the spines that we wisely try to avoid.
It makes sense that they would have a short blooming time; after all, there is only a brief moment between the cool mornings of spring and the blistering afternoons of summer. Pollination of plants that we grow for fruits is generally more effective when temperatures are moderate. High heat can cause pollen to desiccate and become inviable. Even though cactus plants can obviously thrive in our long hot summers, their pollen is as fragile as any other.
We rarely look at cactuses (this is actually the plural) and think “oh great, the cactus crop is almost ready,” although we could.
When pollination is successful, these plants produce fruits that are often deep red — a dramatic contrast to the vivid green of the pads. Both the pads and the fruits are edible, but may not be terribly appealing since they are so well defended. Many have not one, but two kinds of spines to ward off predators. The first are the obvious spikes that could deter any creature with sense. The others are the virtually unseen, short, fine “glochids”, which easily detach from the plant and lodge in the skin. It is a challenge to remove them, and there are many expert opinions on the best way to do so. The smartest thing is to wear heavy gloves and handle the pads with sturdy tongs.
Nopales are edible prickly pear cactuses with no large spines, although they do have glochids, so it is important to treat them with care. Some sources claim their nutritional value makes them worth the effort.
They are low in carbohydrates and calories, with good levels of fiber, protein, minerals and antioxidant compounds. Some people call them “super fruits”, a meaningless designation we should shun. I would not recommend them as a dietary addition, since there are so many caveats I would need to include. Still, the pads and fruits are very attractive, so even if they were not part of the diet, they should definitely be an addition to the landscape.
Angela O’Callaghan, Social Horticulture Specialist for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, can be reached via email or at 702-257-5581.