Fruits of the Desert Await Your Taste Buds

Fruits of the Desert Await Your Taste Buds

By University Communications
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Ripe prickly pear fruit. (Photo courtesy Boyce Thompson Arboretum.)
Ripe prickly pear fruit. (Photo courtesy Boyce Thompson Arboretum.)

Most people recognize the formidable-looking prickly pear cactus more as a staple in local landscaping than as a staple in the kitchen. But many desert inhabitants know that there are edible rewards to be had once an opuntia has been “disarmed” of its arsenal of glochids and spines.

The Boyce Thompson Arboretum will offer a workshop this Saturday at 10:30 a.m. on how to prepare prickly pear pads and fruit without becoming a pincushion. A second workshop will be held on Sept. 1 at the same time.

Jean Groen, author of "Foods of the Superstitions" and an Apache Junction resident, will demonstrate the way to pick, juice and prepare opuntia fruits. The class is included with the arboretum’s regular adult admission of $7.50, or $3 for ages 5-12. No preregistration is required.

This is the third year the Boyce Thompson Arboretum has offered the surprisingly popular class.

August is the time of year when prickly pear fruits ripen in the desert. The class will cover harvesting and preparation methods. Groen also will discuss the nutrition value of cactus, as well as the need for permits to collect cactus from public lands and permission from private landowners.

The class will spend time on the arboretum grounds learning harvesting techniques, and sample opuntia punch.

Prickly pear fruit most often ends up as juice and jelly, but creative cooks have used it for barbeque glaze, yogurt smoothies and more. Southwestern restaurants sometimes use the magenta, watermelon-flavored juice in margaritas, and grill strips from the interior of the pads as a side vegetable called nopalitos.

Groen also will discuss other recipes from her book. Other books available at the arboretum include "The Prickly Pear Cookbook" and "American Indian Cooking" by Tucsonan Carolyn Niethammer, and "Gathering the Desert" by Gary Paul Nabhan of the UA Southwest Center.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum is located 55 miles east of Phoenix via highways 60, near the historic copper mining town of Superior.

From Tucson, take Oracle Road north to Highway 79 near Florence, then east on Highway 60 for 12 miles. For more directions and details call the public information phone line at 520-689-2811, or go online at

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