Are you looking for a new easy going plant to add to your landscape? What about a plant that requires zero maintenance and is completely drought tolerant? What if it also had beautiful flowers that attracted bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to your garden? What if it was edible, had medicinal uses, and produced tons of dark juicy fruits? Interested? Then take a good look at the spineless cactus.
The spineless cactus is common from Mexico to Maine and has over 200 species. The cactus common to Central Florida is the Nopalea cochinellifera, or cochineal cactus. It can also be called the Indian Fig or Prickly Pear. It produces large flat (almost spineless) green pads called nopales that can be used green medicinally much like the aloe plant or cooked and eaten like a vegetable. The cactus also produces tons of dark red juicy fruits called tuna that can be used for their juice and seeds.
This plant is a must have for the Florida permaculture landscape, famine garden, or anyone who is trying to be self sustainable. This is one of those plants that will just always be there for you. Heat, drought, freeze, hurricane, you name it. At least you will have something you can eat.
It is beyond easy to grow. Great in full sun, but also fine in partial shade. Tolerant of the worst of soils. Never needs watering or really any care at all for that matter. Its only weakness is soggy or marshy ground. Plant it somewhere dry and you will get food.
The pads are tasty and nutritious. They are high in vitamin C, boost the immune system, lower cholesterol, and reduce the risk of diabetes. They can be harvested anytime, but the smaller younger pads are the best tasting. The older pads are tougher and have more thorns, but they are still edible. Harvest them with garden gloves or something to protect your hands as they are covered in tiny hair like thorns. For the smaller pads, just rinse under running water and scrape with a knife or abrasive kitchen sponge to remove the prickers. For a larger pad, either cut the prickers out with a knife or peel the pad. I recommend peeling.
The pad is actually very versatile. It can be grilled, boiled, baked, or fried and has the texture and flavor of a lemony green bell pepper. It can be easily mixed in to most casserole or soups recipes but my favorite use is to grill it and use it in fajitas. It has a bright summery flavor and the hint of citrus goes perfectly with Mexican, Thai or Cajun cooking.
The fruits have a deep red interior, almost purplish and are very juicy inside. They are high in antioxidants and contain antiviral, anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties. The also have small spines on the outside and should be peeled before using. Due to their high seed content, they are better if juiced and then made into jellies, syrups, salad dressings, or beverages. The flavor is sweet and slightly tart, sort of a cross between a raspberry and a pomegranate. My favorite use for this, other than jelly is a cactus fruit mojito. The color is beautiful and the flavor is unique. If you drink too many, the cactus still has your back. The fresh juice from the fruit has been used for hundreds of years as a hangover cure.
The cactus is not done yet though, the seeds are surprisingly high in protein (16.6%) and iron (9.45 mg). They also contain almost half of the necessary amino acids that we need to live and have a high oil content (17.2%). They can be dried and ground into a flour or used as an oil crop.
So there you go. Add some cactus to your landscape and some food to your table. It couldn’t be easier.