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A Prickly Pear History Lesson

Getting schooled in Native foodways

SUMMER MONSOONS IN THE SOUTHWESTERN Sonoran Desert produce a wild bounty of crimson fruit. Rising from Engelmann’s prickly pear cacti (Opuntia engelmannii), these fruits, or tuna in Spanish, perch atop Mickey Mouse–shaped pads like ruby crowns. Against muted browns and greens of the desert, the tuna are eye-popping.

When I landed in Tucson for graduate school more than thirty years ago, I was amazed to learn the spine-covered fruits were edible. I sent store-bought prickly pear jelly back home to midwestern friends for the holidays, its dazzling pink hue a cheeky reminder of the desert’s December sunshine. I knew, though, that with enough determination, I could put up my own preserves from foraged fruit just as my Kansas grandmother had canned foods from her garden. When I realized I wasn’t moving after a decade of desert living, I decided to see if harvesting prickly pear fruit could connect me to the native foodways of my adopted home.

One Saturday in late August, a friend and I headed for the Catalina Mountains at Tucson’s northern edge. As a wildlife biologist, I’d traipsed along most of the Catalina’s hiking trails studying bighorn sheep, and knew of some good prickly pear patches. Cicadas hummed as we schlepped a cooler on a sandy trail. Passing hikers tipped hats and pumped arms, probably thinking we were looking for a spot to party. Rattlesnake tracks crisscrossed our path, every few feet another sinuous S in the sand, some depressions three fingers wide. The thought of so many diamondbacks slithering around gave me pause as we headed off-trail to a cactus patch. Thin pants might protect my skin against the insistent sun, but not fangs. But the tuna wouldn’t jump into our cooler by themselves.

As we picked through desert scrub, watchful of each step, I searched for flashes of bright red. Brandishing tongs, I grabbed hold of a ripe tuna, twisted, and plucked. Teeny barbed and hairlike spines, or glochids, speckled each fruit, making foraging slow and nasty. Pausing often to guzzle water, we carefully picked until we drained our bottles and the cooler grew heavy.

Back home and donning thick gloves, I quartered each tuna, their luscious pink insides spilling tiny black seeds. I scrubbed off spines, removed thick rinds, blended flesh, then smashed the pulp through cheesecloth-lined colanders. By dinnertime, my kitchen looked like an alien’s butcher shop, fuchsia splatters everywhere. At the end of this labor I had about eight cups of precious juice in the bowl, but the sight of all those discarded skins chaffed my waste-not mind.

Because I have always found the store-bought jelly to be cloyingly sweet, I added less sugar than the recipe required hoping the tingling aftertaste with hints of fermented Concord grape would burst to the foreground. But the jelly failed to set, and the wine taste remained elusive. So I crafted the syrup into neon margaritas, lemonade, barbeque sauce, and pastries, impressing visiting friends.

A few years later, in the thick of a divorce and looking for a change, I dug up my urban yard’s grass and planted my own prickly pear alongside native ironwood, hackberry, and creosote. Now I could avoid dangerous forays into rattler habitat and pick tuna right in my yard, a space I now shared with three Sonoran desert tortoises.

Before I transformed my yard with native plants, grackles and doves were the only wildlife I noticed from my windows. But now Gambel’s quail, hummingbirds, and vermilion flycatchers all thrived alongside the tortoises.

My first tortoise friend came by way of a law enforcement officer who had seized the reptile in a drug raid. Her carapace was spray-painted tuna pink, and she was about the size of a scuffed cowboy hat. She begged at my back door and spent scorching days beneath my desk, her shell against cool tile and head resting on my foot. I rescued the second tortoise from a bulldozer’s blade, her habitat destroyed for a golf course, and a third actually hatched under a fairy duster plant next to my patio. At first I thought the half-dollar–sized baby tortoise was a plastic triceratops dinosaur my daughter had brought home as a birthday party favor, until the creature ambled across the flagstone. Mature female tortoises, I learned, store sperm for years as an adaptation of resiliency in less-than-ideal conditions, and this baby was the offspring of one of the females I had rescued.

Before I transformed my yard with native plants, grackles and doves were the only wildlife I noticed from my windows. But now Gambel’s quail, hummingbirds, and vermilion flycatchers all thrived alongside the tortoises. During tuna season, the tortoises ambled over to greet me when I brought fruit. They devoured spines, skins, seeds and all, leaving only stains on the ground, their mouths rimmed crimson, as if lipstick kissed.

Because Tucson sits at the intersection of Tohono O’odham, Mexican, and Anglo cultures, my community is one of two designated UNESCO Cities of Gastronomy in the U.S. Our famous local cuisine incorporates Indigenous and heritage crops that Jesuit missionaries brought with them when Spain colonized southern Arizona in the seventeenth century. This last fall, with tuna season in full swing and my jelly-making skills honed from pandemic cooking, I was ready to tackle making prickly pear jelly again. I asked my work colleague Jesus Garcia, a desert food expert with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, how to make jelly more effectively.

Walking through Tucson’s Mission Garden, a living agricultural museum, Garcia practically hummed with enthusiasm, like cicadas with their portent of rain. We stopped next to an O. engelmannii.

“This prickly pear would be eaten only if you were starving,” he said. Growing up in Sonora, Mexico, Garcia had eaten both heritage foods and native plants. “Too many spines, thick skin, and seeds,” he added. “The juice is full of oxalic acid, so you could get sick if you eat too much raw fruit. The pads are slimy when cut.”

And here at last I learned that prickly pear jelly was originally made and consumed by Anglos or, as Garcia called them, “newcomers.” Newcomers like me and the Spanish colonizers who arrived three centuries before. According to Garcia, Tohono O’odham people had no history of using prickly pear, and the parts Hispanic culture used, the young pads called nopales in Spanish, were not from O. engelmannii but O. ficus-indica, a central Mexico native the missionaries brought north.

“Community members harvested the young pads more than the fruit,” Garcia said of the tall heritage plants grown in Tucson’s historic barrios. “We don’t have a history of jelly-making. That’s European, coming from places with colder climates, where food was processed and stored for the winter months.” Now I knew why I had never seen prickly pear jelly or lemonade on the menu at authentic Sonoran-style Mexican restaurants.

I was humbled to be schooled, grateful to have my viewpoint shifted. All these years when I saw the abundance of wild prickly pear fruit, I had seen jelly. Having lived in the desert for decades, I no longer consider myself a newcomer. Now I leave wild prickly pear fruit for wildlife, and harvest my own plants’ crop for my tortoise friends. But I’m still keeping my jelly recipe as a reminder of all I have learned.


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Lisa K. Harris is the author of essays, short stories, and scientific articles about the environment, life’s speed bumps, and food. Her work has appeared in Passages North, Black Fox Literary Review, Highlights for Children, and Litro Magazine, among others, and has been anthologized in (M)othering. An alumna of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference, her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Lisa holds a PhD in wildlife ecology and works as an environmental consultant. @HarrisLisaKim