opuntia robusta

Opuntia robusta. What a beautiful plant. These pads are monsters, thick and heavy, and the fruits really round and large. Luther Burbank, who cultivated a spineless variety, said that he would talk to his plants “to create a vibration of love,” and would tell them, “You don’t need your defensive thorns. I will protect you.”

We processed 5 quarts of prickly pear juice this week-end, using the fruits of Opuntia ficus-indica, a relatively spineless variety. The Opuntia ficus-indica still has plenty of those pesky glochids, what one writer aptly calls peach-fuzz barbed-wires. Glochids are not dangerous, just annoying, but you don’t want to get any lodged in your mouth. The apricot-colored juice is extraordinarily healthful and delicious. It’s not juice really, but nectar, thick and rich and luscious.

prickly pear nectar

In North County San Diego, the cactus fruits, or tunas, are perfect right now for picking and processing. September is Month of the Tuna Ripening. I love all the prickly pear tunas, but I have to confess that I especially love the ones that are easier to harvest. I use tongs and True Blue gloves from World Market. Tunas are now being marketed as a superfruit, which they indeed are, with a long list of medicinal qualities. A great site with recent medical research is Natalie McGee’s Arizona Cactus Ranch website, where you can purchase organic prickly pear juice as well. Some scientists believe that it may prove to be a significant breakthrough in cancer prevention. Prickly pear juice already is being used successfully to help control blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.

Prickly pear plants are fire retardant as well, because as succulents they retain a great deal of water in their pads. They’re great to plant on the perimeters of homes in the back country. In the last few years, I’ve planted several of Burbank’s spineless Opuntias in my backyard, and Opuntia ficus-indica plants around the perimeter as well.

kahlo_burbank kahlo_burbank_ptg

The image on the left is Frida Kahlo’s preparatory drawing of horticulturalist Luther Burbank. In the painting on the right, Burbank, who devoted his life to cultivating hybrids, is depicted as a hybrid himself, growing from a rooted tree and holding five enormous leaves of a philodendron, a plant native to Mexico. When Kahlo first exhibited in the painting in 1938, it was titled Burbank—American Fruit Maker.


Above is another Kahlo painting titled Cactus Fruits, 1938. I used to teach a class—Contemporary Women Artists—so all my Frida Kahlo books are stashed in my office at CSUSM. I don’t remember this painting, and I want to read more about it.


Posted by deborah small


  1. Glochids, big pain for such a tiny sticker. I have never gotten them in my mouth, but I always get a few on my hands. A wet pumice stone will remove them.

    I look forward each year for the Prickly Pears (Tunas) to ripen. Here is how and what I do with my 200 + collected pears. I learned my lesson, never use gloves, tongs or 36” grippers the heavy duty ones. After collected, I power wash them with my hose in the bucket, transfer them to the sink, and use a plastic cutting board to cut them in half scope out the flesh with a spoon, using tongs to hold them in place. Put the flesh/pulp into a blender then use a sieve. What I have is pure nectar; pour the nectar into ice cube trays and freeze them. Months of great prickly pear smoothies.



  2. hi michael, thank you for your helpful comment. glad to hear that nature can take care of those pesky glochids. i hope ed in the comment above found the same thing as well . . .



  3. I have several Opuntia robusta in my yard and have successfully eaten the pulp/juice in years past. However, this year I extracted the juice by holding the fruit with tongs, sliced it lengthwise and scooped it out with a serving spoon, and then ran it through a sieve to isolate the seeds. I noticed some large drops of juice on the cutting board and ran my finger over them to collect them.

    Unfortunately I also collected some thorns which I ingested and almost immediately detected they had stuck in my tongue and palate. I removed a couple from my tongue with tweezers which were about 3cm long. The balance, of which there are several, are imbedded in my gums & palate.

    I contacted the supervising nurse at Hi-Desert Medical Center, Joshua Tree, CA and she had no experience with them in the mouth and basically was unable to offer any assistance. I am in some discomfort but apparently not in danger since I read this cacti isn’t poisonous. Another however, it is now under an hour into this adventure and the outcome has yet to be deter-

    Story to be continued, I think.



    1. Luckily in my experience with glochids in the mouth, my mouth heals overnight. I have not found a way to remove them, so they are just uncomfortable until nature takes care of things. I tried scotch tape which works on the skin, but the mouth is too moist for it to work.



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