Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruitby Jonathan DuHamel on Aug. 01, 2009, under Natural History
The Arizona-Sonoran Desert region has more wild edible plants than anywhere else on the planet according to ethnobotanists. We have cactus fruit, beans from mesquites and palo verde trees, yuccas, agaves, and nut trees, to name just a few edible plants.
Today, I will focus on the barrel cactus. Most cacti bloom in the spring. The barrel cacti bloom and set fruit in the summer. All cactus fruit is edible, none are poisonous, but not all are palatable. The best cactus tasting fruit comes from the saguaro, prickly pear, and barrel cactus.
There are six species of barrel cactus in the region. The most common in the Tucson area are Ferocactus wislizeni, the Fishhook barrel, and Ferocactus emoryi, Coville barrel. The Fishhook commonly grows 2- to 4 feet high, but some can reach 10 feet. Coville is generally 1- to 4 feet. The flower color of Coville is bright red; the Fishhook flower is usually orange, but can also be yellow or red.
The spines of the Fishhook are strongly-hooked and surrounded by several radial spines. The main central spine of the Coville is usually red, flattened and hooked. The few radial spines are relatively wide.
The fruit starts out green, but gradually ripens to yellow. Together with the withered flower, the fruit looks like a miniature pineapple. Because the fruit is relatively dry, it does not rot away like the fruits of saguaros and prickly pears. It is common to have the fruit remain on the plant for a year – until something picks it off.
I especially like barrel cactus fruit because it is the only one without spines; it can be picked and eaten raw right off the plant; both the flesh and the seeds inside can be eaten raw or cooked. The flesh is slightly mucilaginous (slimy like okra). The taste is tart; somewhere between lemon and kiwi fruit. The seeds may be separated and ground to a mush. If you pick a fruit that has been on the cactus for sometime, check for insects unless you don’t mind the extra protein. The flower buds can be eaten also. The buds were often boiled and used like cabbage by native tribes.
Cactus fruit in general is rich in vitamin A and vitamin C. There is clinical evidence that the juice of the fruit of prickly pears lowers blood cholesterol. This may be a characteristic of most cactus fruit, but only prickly pears have been tested so far. If you have a barrel cactus in the yard, and the fruit is yellow, try taking a bite, they are good.
You may notice that barrel cacti frequently lean in one direction – toward the south. This is a reliable indicator of direction in the desert. They lean south so the top can get the most sunlight.
It is reported that Seri Indians sometimes used the Fishhook barrel for emergency water. However, drinking the juice on an empty stomach often causes diarrhea, and some Seri report pain in their bones if they walk a long distance after drinking the juice. The Seri called the Coville, “barrel that kills” because eating the flesh of the cactus (not the fruit) causes nausea, diarrhea, and temporary paralysis, but the pulp can be used as an external analgesic.
Enjoy the fruit of the desert.
Reference: A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.