Cacti and Succulents at the Pierce Farmstead
Cacti are the fierce creatures of the plant world, and just contemplating them can be a bit intimidating, let alone the idea that many of them produce fruit for us to risk eating. At the Farmstead, we’ve had cactus growing for years but not been successful in learning their mysteries and, more importantly, how they taste. That endeavor is ongoing, and will be documented here as we update this page. We plan on sharing the info this summer as we look into what we have, perhaps taste a few, and plant others.
Everyone knows what a cactus is, and all cacti are succulents, which are just fleshy plants with a strong moisture-storing capacity. However, it is a bit more complicated because not all succulents are cacti. An aloe vera plant is a succulent, and can store moisture just as well as a cactus, but while it is in the same order the aloe is from a different family altogether than the cactus. While it really is only a general term meaning moisture-storing and can refer to plants in many orders and families, succulent is used quite often as a term to group the “desert-looking plants” together in stores and online. That’s not a problem as long as you know the distinctions.
So the cactus is a family all to itself, and the family includes plants of many shapes and sizes growing from the northern reaches of Canada to the southernmost regions of South America. While they have spread around the world, cacti are a product of the Americas, and while they can be quite different, they are all similar in many ways.
Finally on the topic of terminology, you might see “pitaya” (pih-TAY-ya) or “pitahaya” (pit-ah-HAY-ya) used as general terms for the fruit of any member of the cactus family (the family being Cactaceae, pronouned “kak-TAY-see-ee“), though those of specific species often have their own names (prickly pear, dragon fruit).
Enough generalities, let’s focus in on some individuals in the cactus family.
Cactaceae: The Cactus Family At the Pierce Farmstead
I. “Prickly Pear” Cacti
Known by many names (“prickly pear cactus”, “nopal” which is Nahuatl for cactus, or by their genus, “optunia“), these type of cacti often grow as a series of connected pads, with small fruit (“cactus pears” or “tuna” in Spanish) that appear at the top as flowers in the spring and fruit by the end of summer. (Opuntia is pronounced “oh-PUN-tee-uh”–there is a good article here about them generally.) All cacti are native to the Americas, and prickly pear cactus were eaten by, and important to, people here at least as far back as the Aztecs.
Young pads (the pads are “nopales”, pron. “no-PAH-lays”) are edible and are said to taste a bit like green beans, and the fruit are edible and taste, apparently, like melons or berries. In both cases, though, you have to get through the spikes to get at them, which keeps most folks away. However it may be worth the effort–increasingly health studies are finding anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, blood glucose lowering and other health benefits from cactus pears. Also take a look at the Ever Eat A Cactus piece from the Tampa Bay Times, the information at WebMD on the topic and a video on How To Prepare Opuntias at Dr. Weil’s site. One type with both medicinal and culinary promise is the xoconostle, listed below.
At the Farmstead, we started with a few cactus and have ordered a few different types of seed to discover more about them. For now, the page just shows the research we’ve done about the ones we have and it will be updated as we expand our collection of edibles. Keep in mind that there are many types of Opuntia, and there are many hybrids, so it’s difficult to say with certainty precisely what species a particular plant is, but that seemed like the place to start.
A. Carlos and Santana — the Opuntia cochenillifera
Located in the midst of the back forty (inches) of the farmstead are two prickly pear cacti that appear to be Opuntia cochenillifera (also good info here). These are apparently not unusual in the U.S.. They have very few large spikes, each has a stalk (meaning it’s not all pads but seems to come up from the ground as a good-sized stem first), the blooms start yellow then get a pink-red, and the pads and fruit are edible (with careful preparation). [A second person told me it may be Opuntia paraguayensis but the flowers on mine are never orange and it seems less likely based on what I’ve seen since.] We’ve named them all to make life easier so these are “Carlos” (unpictured, it is the grayer of the two and nearer the back corner) and “Santana,” which is looking good in the middle of the back forty and is the one pictured below.
The plan for Carlos and Santana? Santanta, at least, has bloomed, as you can see (the above pics are recent). I’m going to see if the two fruit in the coming weeks and possibly give the fruit a taste if so.
B. Engler — the Opuntia engelmannii
Located on the middle of the eastern border of the Farmstead is an Opuntia engelmannii. It is the most aggressive grower, appears to be all pads (no real stem), has large thorns on the pads, the fruits start yellowish then seem to get a dark gray-red that makes you question whether they’re alive, and the pads and fruit are also edible with some careful preparation but there’s less online about eating its fruit, and more about how it grows. [One person said it was likely an Opuntia dillenii aka Opuntia stricta but it doesn’t have raised bumps for the spines, see here.] To simplify the easy to forget Latin terms, we’ve decided to call it “Engler.”
On April 11, 2015 I pruned Engler a bit, and a few of the pads looked youngish and edible, so it was the first thing we tried. I torched the spines off and grilled some then added oil, salt and pepper. These two pads tasted a bit like a cross between green beans and very sweet bell peppers, with an okra-esque slime to them. I boiled the other two (apparently how you de-slime, see the Dr. Weil link, above) and added them to some oil, onions, mushrooms and turkey sausage and sautéed them–this was excellent. They tasted similar but with less of the sweetness (which was fine) and no slime. I still have some cut up and ready for some heuvos napolitos in the morning.
We have also cut open, scooped out and tasted a few of the small red-gray fruit. I’m still not sure if they were fully mature (there were no seeds in them) but I believe they were darn near ripe since they tasted like warm raspberries to us.
C. Opuntia matudae, the “Xoconostle”
The Xoconostle (pron. “cho-ko-NO-slay”), was noted above as a particularly interesting and currently trendy variety of nopale. It has some noted benefits for diabetics and, as a fine food, was even featured on an episode of Top Chef (summary here, video here, at about the 37 minute mark–it counts down, not up). It is more tart than sweet, and can be used for an acid taste in cooking (see here). Much of the most up-to-date information about them online is currently in Spanish, but we have no doubt more people will hear about this variety of cactus pear in the years ahead.
At the Farmstead, we’ve planted some seeds and will keep you posted. We’re a few years of growing away from fruit for our consumption, but then we should have a lifetime’s worth.
D. Opuntia ficus-indica.
These are the most known to be grown for their fruit, sometimes referred to as an Indian or Barbary fig. Again, we have some seeds planted. More to come . . .
II. Cereus Cacti
Cereus (see-ree-us), from the Greek for waxy, is the genus of large cacti which contains the big column-shaped cacti most people picture when you say cactus. See here. We only have one of these. It looks like it’s from a desert somewhere but it’s merrily growing into a giant here in Central Florida.
A. Big Daddy–the Cereus peruvianus
In the back corner grows the biggest cactus on the Farmstead. These are some pictures from its late April bloom in 2013 (the first pic is from 2009, it’s actually larger now). It’s a Cereus peruvianus, also called a Cereus repandus or better yet, a “Peruvian Apple Cactus”. It gets these flowers briefly each year then some buds with red fruit, which I’ve never eaten, but apparently you can. Here is a site about eating the fruits, and it also has an article in the Tampa Bay Times. After fruiting they then turn black and drop off, and the cactus returns to the more typical look in the first picture. Naming him to make things easier to distinguish? Well, we will probably have to go with “Big Daddy”.
The plan for Big Daddy? I honestly don’t think the blooms pollinate every year. I’ve seen the red fruit I think in past years, without really knowing what I was looking at. If it fruits, I’ll check in again here for sure.
III. Echinocereus Cacti
Echinocereus cacti are a genus of ribbed, small to medium-sized cylindrical cacti. You can see “cereus” right in the name, with echino meaning spiny. Many of the small, potted cacti you see are from this genus of very spiny “hedgehog” cacti.
A. The Echinocereus straminaus
Supposedly the best tasting cactus, tasting very similar to strawberries, thus its common name, the Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus. Seeds ordered. To be continued . . .
IV. Dragon Fruit Cacti
Dragon fruit, while many people have never tried it, is still the most widely known type of fruit from a succulent. They are known for similar health benefits to Opuntia, and the fruit are easier to get, though they can be quite expensive at a market. The Hylocereus genus contains the most common dragon fruit, with “hyle” being Greek for forest, and implying that these are cereus that grow in forests, and it is true than they need an environment with more water than some of their cactus cousins. We’ve ordered a mix of seeds and plants from the genus because dragon fruit can be tricky to get to fruit unless you have a few types.
A. Hylocereus undatus
The most common species of dragon fruit, these are sometimes called “white” dragon fruit, or “pitaya blanca”–a reference to the color of the edible inside. I’ve ordered some “Queen of the Night” undatus seeds and also a “variety pack” that appears to be all undatus as well, though they probably have different colored exteriors and other slight differences. I’m currently germinating the “variety” seeds with the old wet paper towel trick, so this is to be continued . . .
B. Hylocereus polyrhizus
This is a different species of dragon fruit, with a red interior and thus are sometimes “red” dragon fruit, or “pitaya roja,” though the outside of the fruit can be a variety of colors. Some say the red ones have healthier properties. This is the only dragon fruit I’ve actually bought as a young plant, the rest are seeds. Name-wise, in keeping with getting them close to the species name, I think we’re forced to go with “Pablo” for this guy–he just doesn’t look like a Polly.
© John D. Pierce, Esq. All Rights Reserved.