When the warm summer monsoon rains hit the dry Arizona landscape, something amazing happens out in the desert. The sandy and tan cactus landscape suddenly sprouts vibrant pink, magenta, and purple prickly pears that are ready for the picking. These beautiful prickly pears can be seen as close as the road front and go for miles, dotting the landscape almost as far as you can see. When I start to see the prickly pears blooming around the end of summer, I only have one thing on my mind. Prickly pear picking!
The prickly pear cacti (opuntia cacti) only produce one harvest of prickly pears each year, with their proud vibrant fruits lining the tops of the cacti pads. These little plump purple ovals always seem to be reaching for the sky, clustering themselves on the cactus pad's highest point. For me, this annual harvest was long overdue. I have been itching to set out into the desert with my basket and tongs, prickly pear picking until the sun goes down. Every summer I would see the prickly pears sprout and every year prickly pear picking just wasn't in the cards for me. This year, I made the harvest a priority and was determined to get up close and personal with this vibrant cactus fruit.
To get a little closer to the prickly pears and talk to a true expert, Mark and I headed down to Arizona Cactus Ranch to meet with Natalie, a prickly pear farmer in the Tucson area. Natalie has been harvesting this desert fruit on her land for years and she graciously opened up her home and land to us, teaching us the true skill of prickly pear picking. Kitchen tongs and wire basket in hand, we hopped into Natalie's off-roading golf cart and bumped along the road through her acres and acres of rugged desert landscape.
The prickly pears at Arizona Cactus Ranch are truly wild, completely untouched until the annual August harvest. There are no chemicals, manmade fertilizers, or irrigation used here, just wild land, desert critters, and occasional monsoon rains. These prickly pears are wild, in the truest sense of the word.
We started our harvest looking for prickly pears with the deepest, most vibrant purple color. When the fruit first sprouts, they erupt as a green knob, then they slowly grow and transition to a light pink hue. Overtime the pink takes over the whole prickly pear and turns deeper and brighter as it ripens. The prickly pear is ready to be picked when the entire fruit is purple and when picked, some of the deep purple is left behind on the cactus pad where the prickly pear used to be. After a few first failed attempts, I was able to quickly fill my basket in minutes.
When prickly pear picking, tongs are a must and rattlesnake protective footwear is highly recommended. Prickly pear picking is not for the faint of heart! It's truly wild out here. Watch out for the tiny prickly pear stickers - they are really small, are found all over the fruit, and imbed themselves into everything.
Prickly pears are basically plump, purple cactus candy. Covered in quills, they taste like a mix between watermelon and strawberry. To enjoy your prickly pear, hold the fruit with tongs and cut lengthwise right down the center. Still holding the prickly pear half with your tongs, scoop out the center seeds and discard. Carefully scoop out the meat, scraping it free from the inside of the prickly pear skin. You can then use the prickly pear meat to make anything prickly pear-ified! If you want to take a bite right out of it, you totally can. Just slice and eat it like you would a pineapple or a mellon, avoiding the skin (even if the prickles are removed).
If prickly pear picking isn't your thing, you can find prickly pears in some Arizona supermarkets around the summer monsoon season or you can buy prickly pear nectar straight from Arizona Cactus Ranch any time of the year. The products sold by Arizona Cactus Ranch range from jelly to fruit leathers and concentrates. Natalie let us try the prickly pear concentrate (no sugar added, literally just reduced and strained prickly pear pulp) with a glass of water and a squeeze of lime, perfect on such a warm Arizona day. Prickly pears are extremely high in antioxidants, polyphenols, and electrolytes, which promote heart health and reduce inflammation. Check out some of their prickly pear research here!
I can't believe this year I finally went prickly pear picking! It was quite an experience out in the true Arizona desert terrain. Thank you Arizona Cactus Ranch for opening up your home and land for us to learn about your wild prickly pears.
I'll be in the kitchen for the next few days, experimenting with some prickly pear recipes - anything you would like me to try? I'm thinking something light and refreshing with a little bit of tequila. All in favor, comment below!