Food Crops & Edibles

The Prickly Pear Cactus Grows Almost Everywhere and is Edible

Roll down the car windows and point the car toward the Southwest, we are going to look for some cactus jelly. When I was a kid growing up, my Aunt and Uncle would come back from vacations to the great American Southwest with rocks, cactus jelly and slide show pictures of dry, cactus filled “rock piles” and recount tales of Roadrunners and Jackrabbits. Can you eat cactus? Yes!

There are over 150 genera of cactus in North Central and South America with 16 native to the United States; and they have been a healthy food source for thousands of years. The genus most used for food grows over large areas of North America all the way to New England and even dry areas in Canada. The most common is the Opuntia or Prickly Pear cactus. It even grows in dry, sandy cliff areas in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. People don’t usually spot it because in our climate it doesn’t grow vigorously and is usually very short and close to the ground. If you would like to sample some Prickly Pear Jelly or cactus pads, no worries. Cactus pads are now available in many grocery stores with their needles mostly removed. The “pears” are available seasonally in late summer and are a bright red color. This is the source of the main ingredient in the jelly.

Prickly Pear Jelly II

3 cups Prickly Pear juice
1,2 cup lemon juice
1 package pectin
5 cups sugar

Make juice from fruits by removing spines. Slice ¼ inch tick. Combine fruit with a ½ cup water in pan and simmer 20 minutes until soft. Mash and strain. Reduce all fruit to juice and let stand overnight to settle sediment. Strain. Make jelly with juice and pectin. Boil over high heat, stirring constantly to a rolling boil. Add sugar and boil heard for 2 1/2 minutes. Remove from heat and skim. Pour into sterile jelly jars and seal.

Caron Wenzel is the owner of Blazing Star Inc. a native plant seed nursery and environmental consulting and education business. You can visit the website at

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