In recent years, edible cacti have gained popularity within gastronomy. However, indigenous communities across North and South America have utilized cacti for centuries, as nutrient-rich, culinary staples or as part of medicinal practices. Not all edible cactus species can be eaten in their entirety—some cacti have edible stems while others bear fruit or buds that can be eaten raw or cooked.
It is important to understand which species of cactus are edible as well as how the different parts can be safely prepared and consumed.
Edible Cactus Plants
Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia spp.)
The edible prickly pear cactus is widely used in cuisines in Mexico and the southwest. Both the pads (nopales) and fruits are edible and are considered highly nutritious.
- Pads: Harvest young plants to avoid tough, older flesh. The nopales have a lower acid content in the morning, so they are best harvested at this time for a sweeter taste. To remove from the main plant, cut the pads at the join using a sterilized knife.
- Fruits: Leave fruits to ripen on the plant before harvesting. The fruits are sweet and taste similar to kiwi or watermelon. They can be eaten raw or made into syrup or candies.
- Preparation: Both the fruits and pads have small spine-like structures called glochids. It is possible to remove them by lightly burning with a candle or lighter. Alternatively, remove glochids using a knife and cut away the needle beds. Take care to remove all glochids before washing the fruits or nopales.
- Benefits: High in antioxidants and a moderate source of vitamin C.
Did you know? Commercially grown nopales are often spineless varieties.
Cholla Cactus (Cylindropuntia fulgida)
Cholla cacti are native to southwestern US and northwestern Mexico. The flower buds and fruits are edible but must be boiled before eating to remove the oxalic acid.
- Buds: Use tongs to harvest buds from March to May. To store, dry the buds and rehydrate them with water when ready to use. Cholla buds have a similar taste to okra or asparagus.
- Fruits: Use tongs to harvest in mid-summer. Cholla cactus fruits are commonly cooked into a syrup or compote.
- Preparation: Remove spines on both the buds and fruits by brushing and rubbing. Use tweezers to remove the remaining glochids.
- Benefits: Rich in calcium.
Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus spp, Echinocactus spp.)
Barrel cacti are various spherical species within the Ferocactus and Echinocactus genera, native to the southwest and Mexico. The buds, fruits, and seeds are edible, although this cactus is mostly harvested for its small, pineapple-shaped fruits. Both the buds and fruits are spineless.
- Buds: Harvest using tongs. Commonly pickled or fermented in brine and used as a savory garnish.
- Fruits: Harvest in the summer or fall. Cut in half and allow to dry for 1 to 3 days to reduce mucilage. Remove the seeds—optional to dry and toast the seeds. Barrel cactus fruits can be eaten raw, but are more commonly cooked into a chutney or jam. The flavor is sharp and lemon-like.
- Benefits: Rich in vitamins A and C.
Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)
The saguaro cactus is primarily native to the Sonoran Desert. Its fruits and seeds are edible and can be eaten either raw or cooked.
- Fruits: Harvest in early to mid-summer—the edible saguaro cactus fruit will begin to open as it ripens on the plant. The taste is sweet and similar to kiwi or strawberry.
- Seeds: Scoop the seeds from the fruit. The seeds can be eaten raw, dried, roasted, or ground. Soak the seeds in water to separate from the flesh.
- Benefits: The fruits are high in vitamin C; the seeds are a source of protein and fats.
Did you know? Saguaro fruit wine is part of a ceremonial practice of the Tohono O’odham people, traditionally ahead of monsoon season.
Dragon Fruit (Hylocereus undatus)
The dragon fruit plant is a tropical cactus species native to southern Mexico and the Central American Pacific coast. The fruits, buds, flowers, and stems are edible, although this cactus is mainly cultivated for its fruit.
- Fruits: Ripe fruits have bright pink skin and are slightly soft to touch. Harvest by twisting the fruit from the stem. Dragon fruits are commonly eaten raw.
- Buds: Harvest just before the buds open. They can be cooked and used as a vegetable similar to okra.
- Flowers: Dragon fruit flowers bloom in the evening and only last for one day. This edible cactus flower can be brewed into a tea or stuffed, similar to squash flowers.
- Stems: Gently twist young stems from the plant. Cut the edges off to remove the spines before boiling.
- Benefits: Rich in vitamin C and antioxidants.
Note: It is important to practice sustainable harvesting if foraging for cacti in the wild. In some states, certain species are protected by laws to prevent harvesting. When foraging for any wild plant, only harvest 10% of the stems, leaves, flowers, or fruits.
Can you Drink Cactus Water?
Cacti store water in their tissues to survive in arid environments. However, most species also contain acids and alkaloids that can cause nausea and digestive issues if ingested. Prickly pear water, as well as some barrel cactus species, contains lower quantities of these chemicals. It is important to consider that cacti are not vessels of liquid, but rather fleshy stems that hold water—drinking water from a cactus is a relative myth. Edible cactus fruits are generally a better source of hydration than cactus flesh.