Perhaps you’ve seen some animals enjoying the watery and soft flesh of the cactus fruit, but are they edible for human consumption too?
In general, cactus fruits are edible and safe for human consumption. Cacti species with edible fruits are:
- Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia species),
- Pitahaya or Dragon ruit actus (Hylocereus undatus),
- Barrel cactus (Echinocactus or Ferocactus species),
- Saguaro cactus (Carnegia gigantea)
- Peruvian apple cactus (Cereus repandus), and
- Organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi).
Cactus fruits look yummy and inviting because of their color and juiciness. However, not all cactus fruits taste good in our taste buds. Check the cactus fruits below that you can eat raw or cooked.
Table of Contents
- 1 Can You Eat Cactus Fruits? 6 Edible Fruit Varieties
- 2 What Makes Up A Cactus Fruit? 3 Major Parts
- 3 How To Pick Cactus Fruit?
- 4 When To Harvest Cactus Fruit? 4 Signs of Fruit Maturity
- 5 How To Cut And Peel Cactus Fruit? 4 Easy Steps
- 6 Frequently Asked Questions
- 7 Summary On Cactus Fruit
- 8 Sources
Cactus fruits are safe for human consumption. They can be eaten fresh, cooked, or turned into a beverage, depending on the variety. Cacti with edible fruits are the 1) Opuntia, 2) Hylocereus, 3) Barrel cactus, 4) Saguaro cactus, 5) Peruvian apple cactus, and 6) Organ pipe cactus.
Almost all cactus fruits are edible and non-toxic, although not all are tasty. Some fruit varieties require special preparation before they can be eaten. Let’s talk about the six famous cacti species widely known for their delicious and unique-looking fruits.
Hundreds of Opuntia cacti species have edible fruits, but the most commercially known fruit in the US is of the Opuntia ficus-indica species. Their fruit is called tuna, nopal fruit, or prickly pear. They usually taste sweet or sour, ranging from green, yellow, orange, and red.
In early to mid-spring, the Opuntia cactus produce large colorful blossoms. When these blossoms fade and drop, oval-shaped berries with tiny spines emerge. The fruit has thick skin covering the watery flesh and typically grows to about 3 to 5 inches long, depending on the species.
Although the tastes vary for every species, they are usually compared to watermelons because of their fleshy and succulent pulp. After the fruits set in the late spring, they ripen during the hot summer. Dark red or deep orange fruit varieties with purplish flesh are the sweetest.
Pitahaya or Dragon fruit cactus is primarily found in tropical countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Its fruits, coming from a cactus, have a unique scaly appearance, varying from deep red, yellow or magenta outer spineless skin.
Hylocereus are epiphytic, climbing on porous surfaces and growing well in organic-rich soils. The flowering and fruiting season is usually summer but can have 5-6 fruiting cycles per year. Dragon fruits are elliptical or oval, about 5-6 inches big, resembling the eye of a dragon.
Edible tiny black seeds are embedded throughout the white or crimson-colored pulp. It has a mildly sweet flavor that can be slightly sour at times. You can usually see fresh dragon fruit sold in the market or as a smoothie served in restaurants during summer.
Most Echinocactus and Ferocactus species produce a lovely cluster of yellow or red flowers that adorn the crown of the cactus in the spring. These blossoms are followed by little oblong-shaped fruits with golden pinkish skin and dried petals on top resembling mini-pineapples.
The barrel cactus fruits measure about 1.5- 2.5 inches long, without glochids. They turn red or yellow when ripe. They have thin outer skin and a thick yellow pulp where shiny black seeds are attached. Fresh fruits are tart with a lemony and nutty flavor but smell like coffee when dried.
Unlike the prickly pear and dragon fruit, the barrel cactus fruit is not as tasty and fleshy. They do not rot quickly since their flesh is relatively dry. It is normal for the fruit to remain attached to the plant for a year or until people or animals pick them.
The ripe fruits are not fit to be eaten raw because of their sour flavor. Instead, fresh fruits are usually included in stews or soups. The pulps are dried and used for pastries, while the easily dislodged seeds are added to granola. Fresh barrel cactus fruits are available from late summer to fall.
The tall saguaro gives large white flowers from the top during springtime, which later develops into fruits for animal and human consumption. Aboriginals in the Sonoran Desert call this fruit bahidaj. The unripe fruit is green, oval, and can be 2- 3.5 inches long.
When the fruit ripens during hot, dry months, it opens up to reveal juicy crimson pulp and a cluster of tiny brown or black seeds. Indigenous people in the desert rely on the saguaro fruit for food during the drought period before the monsoon rain.
The saguaro fruit pulp is extremely sweet and can be consumed either fresh or cooked. Bats, birds, and other insects swarm to eat the tasty flesh and seeds of the fruit at the top, while ground herbivores await to munch on the fallen debris. Summer to fall is the best time to harvest this fruit.
The night-blooming Cereus repandus produces spineless spherical 4 cm diameter fruits called Peruvian apples or Koubo. Their outer skin is smooth, green at first but turns magenta-red or bluish-grey when ripe, depending on the variety.
When the fruit is ripe, the thick skin cracks, revealing the white flesh speckled with tiny black edible seeds. The consistency of the fruit is like shaved ice, crisp and juicy, with mild bitterness and sweetness. The best time to gather ripe fruits is when they are close to ripeness (no cracks).
Fruit takes a month or two to plump and ripe and should be consumed or processed within a day after harvest, or the watery flesh will ferment. They are best eaten when fresh, chilled, or added to salads and fruit mixes. Ensure fresh harvest season around late June to October.
The upright columnar Organ pipe cactus bears fruit after it blooms in spring. Its fruit is called pitaya dulce or sweet pitaya because of its mildly sweet taste when fully ripe. The petals drop when the flower withers, leaving the base, which eventually becomes the fruit.
Pitaya dulce fruit
Initially, the fruits are elongated and green but gradually turn globose and reddish-orange as they develop and ripen. The unripe fruit is hard, has pungent white flesh, and tastes bitter. When the fruits are fully ripe, the long pointy spines on the outer skin will drop as the fruits crack open.
Crimson red pulp will display as the ripe fruits explode. Pitaya dulce red pulps are sweet, tangy, and embedded with countless tiny black seeds. They can be consumed raw, turned into jelly, or processed into a drink. The fruits are abundant from late summer to fall.
Cactus fruit has three major parts: 1) peel, 2) pulp, and 3) seeds. Although water constitutes the largest portion of cactus fruit, it also contains sugar, protein, cellulose, pectin, calcium and potassium. Each cacti species has distinct fruit shapes, sizes, and colors.
After a cactus blossom is pollinated, the petals will wilt and drop, leaving only the stalk still attached to the areole. The stalk will soon become big, bloated, and transformed into a fleshy fruit. Fruits usually occur a few weeks after the cacti’s blooming season.
Here are the compositions of cactus fruit and what they are used for.
The peel of most cactus fruit is thick, fleshy, and edible with various colors and textures. Some varieties have spines around the outer skin, while others have scaly or smooth peels. Depending on the species, the outer skin comprises more or less than 50% of the whole fruit.
According to a study, a tuna fruit peel has about 21% glucose, 8.3% protein, 29.1% cellulose, 2.09% calcium, 3.4% potassium starch and a significant amount of water. Although the skin of tuna fruit is edible, it is usually removed during the process because of the danger of getting the glochids.
On the other hand, dragon fruits and saguaro fruits have thick skin and fibrous inner walls. Since these varieties do not have spines on their outer skins, they often have applications. Many find them suitable for making jellies because of the mild taste and sticky substance found in their peels.
The pulp is the main edible part of the fruit which is the thickest and juiciest. It has a distinct taste and color depending on the species. When ripe, fruit pulps turn red, yellow, or white and it usually has a mild sweet or tangy taste.
The fruit pulp has a mild sweet taste because it contains about 35% glucose, 29% fructose and water content is more or less 40%. Other nutritional contents of the pulp are protein (5.1%), pectin and starch. Seeds are dispersed within the pulp, looking like a watermelon.
The juicy pulp is usually added to salads and fruit salsa or pressed to extract the juice to make fruit drinks. In tropical regions where cactus fruits are widespread, you can find different delicacies such as dragon fruit cake, prickly pear ice cream and peruvian apple candies.
The tiny seeds are glossy, hard-coated, black to brown, and embedded in the pulp. There are hundreds of small seeds in a cactus fruit and they can germinate and grow into new cactus plants.
Cactus seeds are a good source of natural fiber. They also contain protein, cellulose and starch. In some regions, cactus seeds are ground into a fine powder and added to make granola, biscuits, and cakes.
Harvesting techniques vary according to the type of cactus fruit. Harvesters use tongs and long thick gloves to collect fruits with spines and glochids such as tuna fruits. Others use their bare hands to twist and pluck barrel cactus.
To harvest tall columnar cactus such as saguaro, peruvian apple and organ pipe cactus fruits, you will need a stick with a catch net at the tip. On the other hand, Dragon fruit is collected by cutting the fruits off the stem.
It is crucial to use protective clothing like goggles, gloves, jackets, and garden boots when gathering cactus fruits. Cactus spines can be dangerous when they get into your skin, especially the glochids of Opuntia cactus. Glochids are tiny sharp barbs that irritate the skin upon direct contact.
Cactus fruits are ripe and ready to harvest when have 1) uniform solid color, 2) firm shape, 3) spines fall off, and 4) top part recedes. While overripe fruits tend to crack open, become mushy, smelly, and easily drop to the ground.
According to the University of California, the perfect freshness of each fruit lasts only around a week. Most cactus fruits ripen in late summer through fall, so it is better to watch out for your prickly pears during these months before animal scavengers eat your fruits.
Look for these signs on your cactus fruit, and harvest them right away.
1. Uniform Solid Color
Although there are few varieties that remain green when ripe, most cactus fruits turn from green to deep red or yellow when ripe. Fruits that change into dark colors can indicate that they are ripe.
2. Firm Shape
Peruvian apple, barrel cactus, and tuna fruits have a firm shape when ripe. Give the fruit a gentle squeeze. Fully matured fruit is a bit firm to touch. Always wear protective gloves when handling prickly cactus fruits.
3. Spines Fall Off
Look for glochids, or spines, that have fallen off, as it indicates that the fruits are getting ripe. Pitaya dulce and prickly pears that are fully mature have lost some of their prickles. In this way, the fruits can be easier to pick and process.
4. Top Part Recedes
Notice when the top part of the fruit where the petals once formed recedes and fully dries. It signals that the fruit has reached its full potential.
To prepare cactus fruit for consumption it is necessary to 1) remove the spines (if there are any), 2) slice both ends, 3) make a long vertical cut down, and 4) peel back the skin. When peeling cactus fruits’ spines, always wear gloves to avoid being pricked.
Peeling cactus fruit is not that hard unless the fruit has tiny spines. Here are 4 easy steps on peeling cactus fruit.
Step 1. Remove The Spines
If you’re preparing a fruit with glochids or spines such as tuna fruit or the pitaya dulce, you will need to remove the spines to protect your hands. But if you purchase the fruit from the market, then spines are probably removed.
Although some spines tend to fall off as the fruit ripens, there are some that remain in the outer skin. You can use a torch or roll it in a fire grill for a few seconds to burn the tiny barbs off the tuna fruit. For the pitaya dulce, their short spines come off easily by brushing gently. Then wash the fruit properly before cutting.
Step 2. Slice Both Ends
With a knife, slice both ends of the fruit. It will make peeling faster and easier.
Step 3. Make a Long Vertical Cut Down
From the top, make a lengthwise slice downwards through the fruit’s skin. Cut deeply enough through the thick skin.
Step 4. Peel Back The Skin
Using the tip of your finger, wedge down through the skin to pry it open and peel. The thick skin will separate easily from the pulp. You can dry the peel and infuse it for your tea, or you can toss it in your compost bin.
Most cactus fruits can be eaten fresh and raw. After peeling the skin, slice the sweet watery pulp into bite-size pieces and serve. They can make a tasty salad, fruit toppings, or a cold creamy smoothie. Alternatively, squeeze the pulp and make a refreshing beverage.
Others make use of the peels to prepare jams and jellies, and the ground seeds are added to make pastry goodies. Sour fruit varieties such as barrel cactus fruits or green tuna fruits are included in stews for a lemony taste.
Prickly pear cactus is the most common edible cactus. With the spines removed, they can make a crunchy snack or a yummy soup. The flat cactus pads are eaten raw or cooked and prepared in several ways. They can be sauteed, stir-fried, boiled, and grilled.
The seeds of freshly harvest cactus fruits can be collected, washed and air-dried to germinate and grow new cactus. Ground and pulverize cactus seeds are an excellent alternative for all-purpose flour used in baking.
Eating sour cactus fruit can make you sick to your stomach because of the acidic content of the fruit. Consumption of unripe fruit can cause mild vomiting, while overripe cactus fruits can cause food poisoning due to molds.
Most cactus fruits are edible and non-toxic. Cacti with edible fruits are prickly pear cactus, dragon fruit cactus, saguaro cactus, barrel cactus, Peruvian apple cactus, and organ pipe cactus. Their fruits are fleshy and taste sweet or tangy.
The three major components of a cactus fruit are the peel which is thick, the fleshy succulent pulp, and the hundreds of tiny black seeds inside. When the fruit is ripe, it indicates a uniform solid color, firm shape, fallen spines, with the top part receding.
- “Prickly Pear Cactus; Food of the Desert,” by Hope Wilson, Melissa Wyatt, Patricia Zilliox, University of Arizona
- “Dragon Fruit”, by Thulaja, Naidu Ratnala and Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman, Singapore Infopedia
- “California Barrel Cactus,” American University in Beirut
- “The Incredible, Edible Saguaro Fruit,” Desert Botanical Garden Conservation
- “Organ Pipe in Fruti,” Universities Space Research Association
- “Composition of pulp, skin and seeds of prickly pears fruit (Opuntia ficus indica sp.),” by R L El Kossori, C Villaume, E El Boustani, Y Sauvaire, L Méjean, National Center for Biotechnology Information
- “Nutritive value and chemical composition of prickly pear seeds (Opuntia ficus indica L.) growing in Turkey,” by Mehmet Musa Özcan, Fahad Y Al Juhaimi, National Center for Biotechnology Information
- “Prickly Pear Cactus Production,” University of California
- “Cactus and Splinters,” Midwestern State University
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