“Back up, honey. No, a little bit more. If you step back a little bit, and to the left in front of the cactus, I’ll get a better shot,” I said to my husband, peering through my camera’s viewfinder. Just when I was ready to snap the photo, Ed let out a “Yow!” A jackrabbit, whose long ears poked regally through a creosote bush, suddenly leaped out. Startled by the commotion, the hare used his Herculean hind legs to scamper off leaving a dusty trail behind.
Dropping my camera I dashed to Ed’s side, who stood erect and motionless as if in shock “What’s wrong?” I asked, my adrenaline pumping. Face contorted, Ed only groaned before rotating his body to reveal the cause of his grief.
The Cholla cactus plant in front of which Ed stood had blitzed him. His back and behind were peppered by the hairy, innocent-looking needles that poked mischievously from his shorts and T-shirt. I choked back a giggle.
“I don’t even know how it happened. I didn’t even touch the thing,” he said, cautiously eyeing the offending plant as if it were about to jump out at him again. “Now what? How am I gonna get rid of these things?”
“I guess we’ll try tweezers when we get back home,” I answered, trying not to envision the unpleasant “plucking” session. The ride back to the hacienda was, for my husband, a definite “pain in the butt.” Having migrated only days before to The Land of Enchantment, the cactus encountering was our – well his – first dose of what life was gonna be like in the desert.
Alas, since then, I too have been poked, punctured and pricked by cacti. And it’s no guffaw affair. The Cholla, pronounced CHOY-yuh, is probably most often culpable. Referred to as the “jumping cacti,” Reg Manning, author, comedian, and publisher of “What Kinda Cactus Izzat?” writes “There is some debate whether this plant actually jumps on its victims; there is no debate at all about the victims jumping.”
The Cholla is blanketed with thistle-white needles that appear “downy soft” and innocuous but they’re cunning. Just a slight brush against the plant and you’re an instant victim. And don’t be alarmed if you unknowingly walk away with one of Cholla’s joints clinging to some part of your extremity. Although the joints appear to be comfortably bound to the plant, they aren’t. Rather, they loosely hang from the trunk. Just a slight touch you can unknowingly acquire an extra appendage . . . that is, until the pain sets in and you “jump” from the shock.
I didn’t genuinely appreciate cacti until my first spring in the desert when a backyard “keg” barrel cactus blossomed into a beautiful bouquet of colors. I was also awed by the flaming scarlet flowers that suddenly emerged from the tips of the spindly 20-foot-stems of the strange and beautiful ocotillo, also referred to as “monkey tail” that grows near the front entrance of my home. Mistakenly classified as a cactus, ocotillo is actually a “Fouquieriaceae, . . . whatever that means,” says Manning. “It’s what the ‘botany boys’ (in desperation) named because it’s not closely related to any other plant in the Southwest.”
The only cactus with which I was familiar when I moved here was the prickly pear, whose joints resemble a paddle or “hot water bottles,” observed Manning. Prickly pear grow quickly and in abundance but are short lived, surviving twenty years. In the spring, they too burst with large, colorful blossoms that appear in pink, red, yellow and purple. Oodles of the prickly pears grow wild in my backyard. So, you can imagine my surprise when I shopped at a local grocery store for the first time and found paddles in the produce section selling for $1.59 each. Puzzled, I spent the remaining afternoon researching the prickly pear, which this native Michigander soon learned was a Native American staple for centuries. Its flowers later ripen into a delicious red fruit, a common delicacy in Mexico that is sold in markets as “tuna.” The fruit can be made into tuna jelly.
The cactus’ “paddles,” also known as “nopales,” is commonly used in Mexican recipes. Although they can be eaten raw, they taste better if boiled for a few minutes and combined with other dishes such as soup, salads and scrambled eggs.
Readying a paddle for the pot is not a simple procedure. Each paddle must be cleaned individually, the spines and “eyes” must be removed with a kitchen peeler and the paddle edges trimmed. And since the prickly pear easily “bleeds,” that is, it exudes a sticky liquid, the pad must be washed several times before it’s used in a recipe. Purchasing a paddle already “undressed” and ready to go into a recipe was obviously the best choice for me. Besides, who needs another “pain in the butt” in the family?
1 or 2 cactus pads, chopped into bite-size pieces
1/4 pound cheddar cheese (or other favorite cheese) shredded
Salt and pepper to taste
Sauté pad bites in a small amount of butter for 5 minutes. Remove. Beat eggs in a mixing bowl and add shredded cheese and pads. Pour in heated skillet and scramble. Serve warm.
Prickly Pear Salad Dressing from Prickly Pear Sweets and Treats (from http://www.desertusa.com)
1/2 cup prickly pear puree (recipe below)
1/3 cup salad oil (not olive oil)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
3 to 4 tablespoons tarragon white wine vingegar
Shake all ingredients together in a covered jar. Makes about 1 cup. This pretty pink dressing is thin like oil and vinegar dressing, but lower in calories. Good on fruit salads and tossed green salads.
Prickly Pear Puree
Wash and peel ripe prickly pears. Cut in half with a knife and scoop out the seeds. Force the raw pulp through a medium to fine strainer. Freeze either fruti pulp or the puree. Simply pack into freezer containers and seal. Thaw before using.