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Prickly pear an easy-to-care-for landscaping asset -- and it's edible

The prickly pear is a plant of many uses. It provides food for both people and animals and requires little care in landscaping. Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sps.)m is not isolated to remote Arizona deserts, as many believe. It can be found on the Atlantic Coast and throughout the entire Southwest as far east as Nebraska. It is even found on the hillsides and vacant lots of Los Angeles.

Cactus is about 90 percent water, but no clear water flows from the plant, contrary to what many people believe. The pulp of most cacti, however, can be mashed and pressed to extract a gluelike liquid. The easiest way to obtain water from the cactus is simply to peel the fruits or young pads of their spines and hairlike glochids and eat them raw.

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The leaves (pads), fruits, seeds, and flowers of the prickly pear are all edible and can be prepared in a broad variety of ways. The main precaution is to be sure to collect and clean both pads and fruits carefully before using.

The prickly pear is covered with spines and, at the base of each spine, numerous tiny hairlike spines called glochids. If they get into the skin, they can cause irritation. It is best to use gloves or a piece of canvas or heavy brown paper in gathering the fruits and pads.

The spines and glochids can then be removed either by peeling off the skin of the fruit or pad, or by burning them off.

The young, glossy green pads are the best to eat. They are easiest prepared by simply peeling off the skin, dicing them, and adding to salads. The peeled pads can also be sliced thin (like green beans) and boiled. Pour off the first water to reduce any sliminess.

Much water is released from the cactus as it cooks. Keep cooking till this water is almost all evaporated and then add diced onions and green papers. Cover and let it cook for a few minutes. Then add a few sliced tomatoes just before serving.

Omelets are also commonly made with prickly-pear pads. Simply peel and dice and cook in a skillet till the water starts to come out of the cactus. Add diced onions and eggs and serve when ready.

Prickly-pear pads help to thicken the stock for soups and stews, much as okra does. The peeled pads can be baked like squash or pickled. There are many other ways these cactus pads can be eaten.

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The sweet fruits of the prickly pear cactus are responsible for the "pear" in the name, although they are just as commonly referred to as cactus apples. They can be eaten raw when ripe. Simply pick the fruit, being careful to protect the hands. Remove the glochids by burning off, scraping off, or by simply peeling the entire fruit.

The tast is similar to watermelon, with a more granular texture.

The pulp is full of tiny seeds which can be chewed and eaten, swallowed whole , or dried and ground into flour, as the Indians did many years ago. The flour is then used for pastry products.

The fruits are most abundant in the late summer. Pies, jams, and jellies can be made from the fruits by following standard recipes. I've even had prickly-pear ice cream, which was made by mashing up the peeled fruit, mixing it with cream, and then freezing it.

The prickly pear cactus is an easy, low- care, drought-resistant plant to grow in your yard. The individual pads need only be inserted into the soil and they will take hold and grow. Of course, for the plant to thrive, it has to live in one of the predominantly sunny, more arid regions of the United States. They will not live through long periods of frost and snow, nor will they survive in an extremely wet environment.

Once planted and established around the perimeter of the yard, they will not only provide a supply of food, but also serve as a natural fence through which most animal and human intruders will not penetrate.

Assuming it is a solid patch, prickly pear cactus will acts as a firebreak in a grass or brush fire, even though the flames will cause some damage to the plant.

The prickly pear cactus grows in clusters with flat, broad, oval fleshy pads (which are technically stems) covered with numerous spines (which are technically leaves).

The many-petaled flowers are purple, red, orange, or yellow. The petals are somewhat fleshy. The sepals are thick, green, or partly colored. The mature fruits are yellow, red, or purple, with the color of the insides usually corresponding to the skin color.

While synonymous with the arid deserts of the Southwest, the pear is certainly worthy of a home in all backyards within its growing climate.

Seeds can be obtained from Survival Services, Cactus, PO Box 42151, Los Angeles, Calif. 90042. Write for the current price and availabili ty.

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