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Cactus Fruit

By Rick Gush, Urban Farm contributor

Friday, September 23, 2011

O. ficus-indica

Photo by Rick Gush

It is my goal to harvest and eat as much free fruit as possible, including cactus fruit.

My campaign to harvest and eat as much free fruit as possible has now moved into cactus-fruit season. The bad news is that this fruit requires a bit more care in handling and preparation. The good news is that almost nobody else wants to harvest the fruit, so I have them all to myself.

The cactus fruit that I am harvesting now is the Opuntia ficus-indica, which grows on very large flat-pad cacti that are fairly common in the parts of the world that have mild winters. Also called prickly pears or Indian figs, these plants are native to Mexico.

Luckily for me, the O. ficus-indica that produces the biggest and most succulent fruit is also a variety of cactus with few spines. Our garden has a smaller, spinier O. ficus-indica variety, which produces some nice, dark-red fruit, but they are much smaller than the big Indian fig fruit.

Harvesting cactus fruit is often made difficult by the fact that it is hard to reach the top pads where the fruit grows. In a big stand of cacti, the fruit can be 10 feet up in the air with an imposing set of spiny trunk pads blocking access. Here in Liguria, Italy, I can usually find cacti that are growing out of the side of a wall in such a manner that I can reach up from below and harvest their fruit.

When my wife and I visit the island of Elba, Italy, in October, I always take what I need to make a pair of harvesting poles. I attach a small cloth bag held open with a bent coat hanger on one long, Arundo-cane pole. The other long pole has a 9-inch-wide rake head attached to it. The poles give me a reach of 10 or 12 feet, allowing me to maneuver the bag under the fruit and pull it off the pad so that it falls right into the bag. It is sort of like a carnival game, and it’s not unusual to fail, watching a wonderful, ripe fruit fall irretrievably into the middle of the cacti patch. In any event, however, I always manage to collect an abundant harvest.

Once back in the kitchen, I put leather gloves on to prepare the fruit for eating. The exterior of the fruits are dotted with clumps of tiny, almost invisible spines, which must be removed prior to eating. A sharp knife will easily remove the outer skin, leaving a bright-orange-and-red, pulpy mass full of crunchy seeds. As usual, I am the goat who eats the entire fruit — seeds and all — while my wife takes a bit more time to separate the seeds from the pulp.

We eat the cactus fruit by themselves, mixed with breakfast cereals or other fruits, or mixed into green salads. A few years ago, we ate some cactus fruit baked into little pastry pies.

However one eats them, the fruit is very tasty, and I’m always sort of laughing at the fact that almost nobody else bothers to eat them.

Read more of Rick's Favorite Crops »

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Jurek, Mk, AL
Posted: 5/19/2012 9:18:05 AM
Hi David,

It is amazing how much free fruit there is out there, isn't it? Hope you continue to enjoy touring around and visiting your family members. I should learn from you, as I'm not very good at visiting friends and family.

Hi Bruce,
Yeah, I remember a ton of cactus fruit being available in Las Vegas in the older areas. I'm not sure where all these prohibitions on chickens in suburban and urban yards, but that definitely has to change.

Hi Judy,

How cool you get to go olive harvesting in Umbria! I keep telling my friends around here that agrotourism is on the rise, and that they could get some volunteer help on their farms in exchange for room and board. I can think of about a thousand farm agritourism places I'd love to visit myself. I'd kill to be able to help with the horseradish harvest in Poland for a week or two, or help with the rice harvest on Bali or the pineapple harvest on Hawaii for a day or so.

So, I'm in the phone book as Charles Gush in Rapallo should you have need of any help while you're here in Italy. I'm only a few hours driove from Umbria, so if you find yourself in any trouble, please don't hesitate to call.

-Rick
rick, rapallo, YT
Posted: 9/28/2011 9:37:46 PM
I've got a neighbor who has several dozen prickly pear cacti in his yard, and he won't eat the fruit. Mores the pity.
Bruce, Las Vegas, NV
Posted: 9/26/2011 11:22:00 AM
Will be helping in the harvest of the fruit of the olive tree in Umbria in Oct., Fellow Blogger! Prickly pears make good jam.
Judy, South Salem, NY
Posted: 9/26/2011 4:54:35 AM

About the Blogger

Rick Gush

Rick Gush
Rick Gush has long been a staunch organic gardener. While a student at the University of California at Davis he worked at local tomato and sugar beet farms and continued in the agricultural and horticultural industries for many years. A career move in the 1990s led him to design computer games, but no matter how much of a techie he’s become, gardening and farming remain his principal passions.

In 2000, Rick moved to Italy, where he writes to you about his cliff garden and other experiences in Italian urban agriculture.

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