Cacti as Food


Almost all fleshy fruits of cacti are edible, not only those of the saguaro and Indian fig cactus, and many are consumed by people living in the drier regions of the New World, especially Native Americans. Moerman (1998) comprehensively describes their use as food in the United States. A large number of cacti make up at least part of the daily diet of many Mexicans as well. The Spanish used the term pitaya, also commonly spelled pitahaya, for the fruits of many of the columnar cacti. The term simply means scaly fruit but nowadays it is usually used only for species of Stenocereus (Pi-menta-Barrios and Nobel 1994, 77). Fruits are harvested from wild plants, but S. fricii, S. griseus, S. queretaroensis, and S. stellatus are cultivated as well. Stenocereuspruinosusand S. thurberi, though not cultivated, have been of great importance to Native Americans of the Sonoran Desert and are commonly referred to, respectively, as pitayó de Octubre, pitaya of October, and pitayó dulce, sweet pitaya. Stenocereus gummosus of lower Baja California and part of the Sonoran Desert on the Mexican mainland is often referred to as pitayó agrio, sour pitaya, but it has long been used by people in this region, especially the Seri of northwestern Mexico (Felger and Moser 1985,245).

The fruits of two species of Pachycereus are often eaten fresh. Pachycereus pringlei, the cardón, is one of the largest columnar cacti of the Sonoran Desert. The Seri recognize four types of cardón fruits according to the color of the pulp: red or red-purple, white, light yellow-orange, and pinkish white. Spine length of these fruits may vary considerably, but all are delicious, either fresh or preserved. They are harvested with long poles similar to those used for collecting saguaro fruits. The Seri also like to eat toasted cardón seeds, which are ground up into a mash. The Seri also participate in a second harvest of the seeds in which, after eating large quantities of fresh fruits, they defecate on flat rocks where their droppings dry in the sun. They later return, remove the seeds, and clean and cook them (Felger and Moser 1985, 251-253). Pachycereus schottii, the senita, also produces good-tasting fruits though they not harvested formally as a crop like those of P. pringlei or Carnegiea gigantea.

Myrtillocactus geometrizans is another large cactus whose fruits are widely eaten. Called the garambullo, this fruit is purple and about the size of a grape. Edward Palmer reported in 1878, "The fruit of this species of Cactus is rather of a cherry acid taste. [The] pulp [is] red of the currant nature but full of small black seeds. Outside it is of a dull red color. It is perhaps more the character of cranberry but not so sour. It is very abundant fruit. Birds are fond of it; so [are] the Indian and mixed races both in its ripe and dry condition____

Many cultivated fruits are no better to eat than this" (Bye 1979b, 144). Usually the fruits are eaten fresh but they maybe dried like raisins. Myrtillocactus geometrizans is known to some as bilberry cactus (Barthlott 1979,6).

Several species of the hedgehog cactus, Echi-nocereus, produce delicious fruits. Some refer to the plants as strawberry cacti because of the taste. Whiting (1966,85) reported that the Hopi use the fruits of E.fendleri not only fresh, but dried and as a source of sweetening. Echinocereus engelmannii, a common species of the Sonoran Desert, "bears a Fruits of Pachycereus deliciously palatable fruit," according to Parry pringlei, the cactus is illustrated on page 16

Garambullo Fruit

Fruits and young stem segments, nopales, of Opuntia spp. (tunas), and the grapelike fruit, garambullo, of Myrtillocactus geometrizans (buds and flowers illustrated on page 30) in a Mexican market

(1858,21) and its use can be traced back to the Hohokam (Gasser 1982,223-225). According to Curtin (1949, 57), "when ripe, the scarlet fruit, which has a network of white spines, is eaten, the spines being removed with a stick [It] 'tastes between strawberry and vanilla'."

Curtin (1949,55-56) also noted that the Pima used Ferocactus wislizeni for food: "A sweet dish was prepared by removing the top of the plant and the spines, then the cactus was cut in large slices, which were carried home and cut into small pieces, like potatoes, and, while fresh, were placed on top of dry mesquite beans in a pot with a little water and slowly boiled for a long time." Other groups of Native Americans also used this procedure as well as eating the seeds.

The barrel cactus Ferocactus histrix of central Mexico has a long history of food use. Mature floral buds, called cabuches, are widely eaten in the Mexican states of Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí. They are harvested and eaten after frying or boiling; often they are mixed with chili peppers or fried eggs. Buds of F. haematacanthus are commercially harvested and canned in San Luis Potosí; these cabuches are then cooked and added to soups, salads, and other dishes.

Ripe fruits of Ferocactus histrix are collected from the plants and sold in markets, being called borrachitos, little drunk men, or tuna de biznaga, biznaguitas, or jarritos (del Castillo and Trujillo 1991,498). The name borrachitos is used because sometimes the fruits ferment, thus providing an alcoholic drink. A nonalcoholic drink called agua de biznaga is also made from this cactus.

Ferocactus histrix is also the source of acitrón or dulce de biznaga, a type of cactus candy. The fleshy parenchyma tissue of the stem is removed, cut into pieces, and boiled 2-3 hours. An equal amount of white or brown sugar is slowly added, and the material further boiled for a day or two until the mass has become a viscous, taffy-like substance. It is removed from the pot and air dried into the candy (del Castillo and Trujillo 1991, 498-499). This sweet concoction may be eaten as is, or used in pastries and tamales. The extensive exploitation of F. histrix for the making of cactus candy is a conservation concern, as the larger plants are destroyed in obtaining the parenchyma.

Hylocereus undatus, perhaps a native of the Caribbean coast, Yucatán, and other tropical regions of Mexico, or possibly of cultivated origin, is called pitahaya orejona (Bravo-Hollis and Sánchez-Mejorada 1991, 510). It and a related spe-

Cactus Food Images

cies, H. triangularis, are widely cultivated for their fruits in several regions of the New World, Europe, and Asia (Cacioppo 1996). The fruits are brightiy colored, sweet, and rich in vitamins. Hy-locereus undatus has become a popular cultivated plant in Vietnam, the fruits being called dragon fruits. Large quantities are exported to other Asian countries.

Fruits, called chilitos, of several species of Mammillaria are often gathered and consumed. Edward Palmer described them as "of a red color and an agreeable acid, sweet [taste]... much eaten by Indians and mixed races fresh and in the dried state" (Bye 1979b, 144).

Peniocereus greggii, though producing fruits that are not often eaten, develops a large subterranean root that maybe baked, peeled, and eaten. That same root may also be chewed to alleviate thirst (Curtin 1949,55).

Any consideration of cacti as food cannot omit mention of the many species of Opuntia other than O. ficus-indica that are used. Many opuntias produce fleshy fruits, and the indigenous people long ago began consuming them as part of their diets. Tunas or the fruits of prickly pears are harvested from wild plants throughout much of Mexico; numerous roadside stands are constructed to

Garambullo Fruit
Dragon fruits, Hylocereus undatus

sell them to passers-by. Tunas are also sold in local markets. They are prepared and eaten in the same manner as those of O. ficus-indica, described under Indian Fig Cactus. Likewise, the nopalitos or the tender, young stem joints of prickly pears are sold throughout Mexico as well as in the southwestern United States. Women deftly trim off the areoles and their offending glochids while sitting in the market.

Fruits of the chollas are less popular, though Native Americans consume them as a supplement Garambullo, the fruit of to their diet, especially in arid regions of the Myrtillocactus geometri-

zans, for sale in Mexico

Cactus Moser

Sonoran Desert (Felger and Moser 1985, 266273). Cylindropuntia fulgida is an example of a cholla from which the fruits are harvested. The flower buds of chollas also provide an important part of the diet for many Native Americans of the Sonoran Desert (Curtin 1949, 58-59; Wendy Hodgson, pers. comm.). One of the most impor-Cactus fruits (tunas) and tant sources of flower buds is C. acanthocarpa, a stem segments for sale in large, widespread species of the southwestern San Luis Potosí, Mexico

United States and northwestern Mexico. The Pima typically dig a pit about 1 m (3.3 ft) in diameter and line it with small stones. A fire of mes-quite wood (Prosopis) is started and allowed to burn for as long as 4 hours until the stones are quite hot. The stones are then covered with the succulent-leaved shrub Suaeda moquinii (Cheno-podiaceae) and the cholla buds poured into the pit. More leaves of Suaeda are then placed on and among the cactus buds to provide moisture for the steaming process as well as for flavor. Canvas or metal is laid over the pit and covered with dirt, and the buds allowed to steam overnight (Rea 1997, 272). The spines and glochids maybe removed from the buds either before or after roasting, using special screens or simply by scraping with pieces of saguaro ribs. The cholla buds may be stored indefinitely after roasting. "As they make a good balanced meal, the baked buds are ground and made into gruel to be given to patients suffering from stomach trouble and needing a special diet" (Curtin 1949,58).


South Americans have also made use of various cacti as a source of food, though perhaps not to the extent of that by native North Americans. Neo-werdermannia vorwerkii, a small spherical cactus, is peeled, cooked, and eaten like potatoes by the indigenous people of upland Bolivia, and as many as 30,000 plants are harvested each year, particularly to prepare special dishes for the celebration of certain religious days (W. Hoffmann 1996).

I have observed the fruits of Corryo cactus pul-quiensis being harvested by boys for local consumption in the Andes mountains near Arequipa, Peru. The green fruits, though fairly spiny, have a pleasant taste. Likewise, the fruits of Stetsonia cor-yne are eaten by various groups in the Gran Chaco of Argentina (Arenas and Scarpa 1998).

The fruits of Selenicereus setaceus, a widespread South American species, are also consumed for food, as are those of Peniocereus serpentinus (Sou-laire 1947,45). Two species of Pereskia, P. aculeata and P. guamacho, have edible fruits, the former often called Barbados gooseberry (Barthlott 1979, 6; Leuenberger 1986,48). Epiphyllum anguliger, an epiphytic cactus of Mexico, is also said to produce a fruit like a gooseberry (Barthlott 1979,6).

Fruits of Corryocactus pulquiensis, near Arequipa, Peru

Selenicereus Setaceus

Trimming nopalitos, stem segments of Opuntia, in a market in San Miguel de Allende, México

Cereus répandus is a tall columnar cactus called cadushi that provides a source of food for local people on Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles. The fruits are edible, but more importantly, the stems provide an important staple food: "To obtain the edible portion (a small percentage of the whole), the tough, colorless, transparent skin is peeled from the hollows, and then the V'a-inch [3mm] layer of soft, granular, dark-green flesh is cut off in strips and used fresh, or dried and pounded to a mealy powder. Cadushi powder is also marketed, wrapped in small pieces of paper When added to boiling water and cooked for at least 15 min., it forms a thinly mucilaginous green soup stock with a mild asparagus flavor" (Morton 1967,186).

CACTI AS ANIMAL FOOD Both wild and domesticated animals lack water and palatable food in many arid regions. Goats have become one of the most widespread domesticated animals, and they seem to be able to eat almost anything. I remember returningto my campsite in Mexico one afternoon to find a goat eating the canvas of my camp chair. As I shooed him away I noticed the mass of cholla stems hanging from his beard. Clearly, chollas and other cacti were an important source of nutrition. I have also seen goats removing flower buds and fruits from barrel cacti. Herders may even harvest barrel cacti for their animals, slicing the plant into pieces so that the goats can get to the moist parenchyma tissue within (del Castillo and Trujillo 1991, 500). The

Fruits of Corryocactus pulquiensis, near Arequipa, Peru

Trimming nopalitos, stem segments of Opuntia, in a market in San Miguel de Allende, México stems of many of the columnar cacti are harvested in a similar fashion (Nobel 1994,55). Evidence of widespread damage and destruction by livestock is particularly evident in drought years and in regions where cattle and goats have been allowed to browse on the limited supply of plant matter.

Early in the twentieth century, Luther Burbank tried to market spineless forms of prickly pear cacti as cattle food. His nutritional claims were exaggerated and his prices high, but he was correct that these plants could be an important part of livestock diet (Benson 1982,223-227). Cactus tissue contains not only crude proteins, fats, carbohydrates, ash, and fiber but is also a rich source of calcium and phosphorus (Cruse 1973,214).

Ranchers in south Texas have long used prickly pears as a source of cattle food, burning off the spines with "pear burners" to make the cacti more palatable. An animal may eat up to 10% of its body weight daily in Opuntia stem joints, so large quantities of plants must be burned. However, the stem joints provide both nutrition and water for the livestock (Nobel 1994,57). This practice is still followed, though many ranchers now root plow the natural vegetation and introduce exotic grasses for grazing. Unfortunately, the plowing also spreads O. engelmannii through its vegetative propagation, resulting in almost impenetrable masses of the cactus rather than the desired grasses, and in the process other native plants are lost. Other problem cacti are discussed under Cacti as Weeds.

Wild animals such as deer, javelina (peccaries), rodents, and birds also use cacti extensively as a source of nutrition. Up to a fourth of the food intake of deer in Texas may be Opuntia stem joints (Nobel 1994,55).

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