Which Cacti Can You Eat?

Did you know cactus is edible?

These days, as soon as a new delicacy pops ups online, no matter how bizarre it is, we hit the streets to find a restaurant or food cart that serves it.

Most of these unique edibles revolve around the sea, but we can openly say that seafood is finger-licking delicious.

So, hearing that a cactus is edible shouldn’t be that big of a shock! If you haven’t eaten one but want to try it, you have come to the right place.

This detailed guide will tell you all about which cactuses you can eat, their nutritional benefits, and which ones to avoid.

Most people think cactus is inedible, and that’s true. Not all are. However, nearly every fruit of a cactus plant can be enjoyed. They are tasty, sweet, some sour, and full of nutrients.

Now that you know the basics about eating a cactus, let’s take a look at other things concerning it:

Is Cactus Edible?

As mentioned above, not all cactuses are edible. The ones that are cannot be eaten as they are. We all know that a cactus is a prickly succulent.

Before eating it, you need to remove all the spines. This often makes people wonder, “Is it safe to eat a cactus?”

Wild foraging has risks, and a native food such as this needs to be prepared a certain way to make it edible.

Flavors of cactuses range from sweet to fruity, sour, and bland. Some are pretty bitter and intolerant.

Since cactus is native to Mexico and eaten mainly by Latin Americans, Mexicans figured out early which species were edible and which ones were to be left alone.

Many succulents are edible as well. However, they do not classify under cactus. For example, agave leaves have been providing food for many years now.

The blue agave’s nectar is famous for making tequila. Other alcoholic beverages made from agave juice include mezcal, bacanora, pulque, and sotol.

Is Cactus Safe to Eat?

Eating a cactus is no joke. Not only is it difficult to prepare and cook, but it also has an acquired taste that many people come to like not to love, slowly.

Some cactuses don’t have prickly spines, making it very easy to eat the flesh. Others, like the Prickly Pear, need to be cleaned first.

So, wear gloves when handling a cactus, whether you are planting them in your garden or harvesting them to grace your kitchen counter.

Rub the skin with a scrubbing brush and remove all those fine hairs. The ones in stores are already cleaned with the skin and fruit packed separately.

Just to give you a little push to try a cactus, let us tell you how this plant can be enjoyed:

The skin of the cactus can be used in salads. It has a crunchy texture, which makes your salad feel fresh. As for the fruit, its pulp can be eaten raw, grilled, jellied, juiced, stewed, and used in a cocktail.

For centuries, people from the Sonoran Desert (known for its plants and animals) have enjoyed cactus in many ways. Yet, we are only learning now that this plant is edible.

While some varieties can be enjoyed in a salad or sautéed with your chicken steak, others are poisonous and harmful to humans.

Cactus is a great edible plant because it is nutritious, provides hydration, and is eco-friendly.

Following is a list of the top cactuses you can eat:

Prickly Pear Cactus

This cactus belongs to the Opuntia cacti group, which has around 180 species. The fruit and the pad of the Prickly Pear cactus can be eaten.

You will find the pads of this cactus in supermarkets with the name nopales.

If you have planted this cactus in your garden and are harvesting it for a meal, you need to be very careful.

After removing the spines, you can eat them raw or prepare them like any vegetable you would.

The fruit of the Prickly Pear cactus is called nopales, tuna, or Indian fig. It has a sweet taste and can also be juiced.

Make sure to remove the skin and irritating glochids first before you blend the pulp.

Nutritional Benefits

The Prickly Pear cactus contains essential fatty acids, carotenoids, and antioxidants.

It has important vitamins and minerals like Vitamin A and Vitamin C and magnesium, calcium, iron, and potassium, and it is high in fiber.

Cholla Cactus

The Cholla cactus is quite different from others. What’s so unique about it is that its edible parts are not the fruits or the leaves ― it’s the flowers.

Though the fruit can also be eaten, the unopened flower buds have too many nutritional benefits to ignore.

Cholla buds are high in calcium, which facilitates muscle and bone development. To prepare this cactus’s flower buds, remove the glochids. You can add them to antipasto salad or enjoy them with beans.

Nutritional Benefits

The amount of calcium in Cholla buds is more than what you get from milk, and that too in just 2 tablespoons.

Nursing mothers at risk of osteoporosis are advised to eat flower buds to increase their strength.

Those with diabetes can also benefit from the buds, as the pectin and soluble fiber regulate blood pressure.

Dragon Fruit Cactus

People living in Central America love the Dragon Fruit cactus. The entire plant, from top to bottom, is edible.

However, it is recommended to avoid the stem because it is hard to chew. Though, you can use it for a smoothie.

The taste of the stem usually varies between mild and neutral sweet.

As for the flower buds of this cactus, you can stir fry them or add them as a garnish to your soup. The flowers can also be dried and used for tea.

Finally, we have the fruit. The fleshy inside part is edible, but the skin is not.

Nutritional Benefits

This cactus is rich in Vitamin A, C, and minerals, including phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium. It is also low in calories and high in fiber, which makes it amazing diet food.

Barrel Cactus

The Barrel cactus is characterized by its large, stiff spines. It has edible pads, stems, fruits, and flowers.

What sets this plant apart from other cactuses is that its fruit has tiny, black seeds, which are also edible.

Do not eat the seeds raw because they have a flat taste. You can dry the seeds and then toast and grind them.

The powder can be added to flatbread dough for a nutty flavor.

The bright red flowers of the Barrel cactus are usually added to dishes. As for the fruit, it has a lemon-like tart flavor.

The good news is that the fruit does not have any glochids, which makes handling and eating them easy.

Nutritional Benefits

The fruit of the Barrel cactus contains Vitamin A and Vitamin C. The pulp is high in fiber and has analgesic properties.

Like the Dragon Fruit cactus, it has low calories and fat, which makes it an amazing diet food

Saguaro Cactus

This cactus is popular for its edible seeds and fruits. The fruit can be eaten fresh or blended to make juice.

You can also cut the fruit into slices, dry them and preserve them for future use in teas or dried fruit.

The fruit of the Saguaro cactus is used to make syrup, jam, and wine. The black seeds can be pulverized and added to porridge for a nutty flavor.

The seeds can also be pressed to extract oil and used in cooking. 

Nutritional Benefits

The Saguaro cactus and fruit contain low calories and are extremely nutritious. They are high in soluble fiber, protein, Vitamin C and Vitamin B12.

Poisonous Cactus

Succulents contain acidic compounds, which the human liver has difficulty processing.

The thick flesh of the cactus has alkaloids, which causes unpleasant symptoms, including paralysis, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.  

As mentioned at the beginning of this guide, some cactuses are poisonous. The top three are listed below:

Peyote Cactus

Scientifically known as Lophophora williamsii, the Peyote cactus is a toxic species. It contains mescaline, which is a psychedelic alkaloid.

The compound induces psychotic effects on consumption. Its most common side effects include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Hallucinations
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Depersonalization
  • Illusions
  • Tremors
  • Sweating

In rare cases, eating Peyote cactus can prove to be fatal. Its effects take place in 4 hours, and they start with visual impairment.

San Pedro Cactus

This cactus causes the same side effects as the Peyote cactus. It contains the psychedelic alkaloid called mescaline. Its side effects include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Palpitation
  • Tremors
  • Stomach Pain

Bolivian Torch Cactus

The Bolivian Torch Cactus is known as Echinopsis lageniformis. This cactus is not edible due to its high toxicity level and psychedelic side effects

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the cactus is an underrated nutritious edible plant.

The most commonly consumed species are the Prickly Pear cactus and the fruit of Dragon Fruit cactus.

We all like to plant rosemary, mint, oregano, chives, and thyme in our garden. These are all herbs you will find in every gardening enthusiast’s front yard, but you will seldom see a cactus.

So, why not do something different and create a desert landscape. If you don’t like the cactus taste, you can make it a part of your curb appeal and go the extra mile to give your house’s exterior a Tuscan feel.