Have You Ever Tried the Fruit From this Colorado Cactus?
Prickly pear margaritas are commonly featured on cocktail menus at many bars and restaurants throughout Colorado, but have you ever tried the bright pink juice straight from the source?
Prickly pear cacti pop up in places from Mexico to Canada, and two types of the Opuntia species grow in the Rocky Mountain region. Colorado's semi-arid climate allows these spiny plants, as well as other species in the same family to thrive, however, the kinds of cacti that are found here tend to be smaller and lower-growing than in other states such as Arizona. Prickly pear cacti are well adapted to desert ecosystems and prefer sandy, well-drained soil.
This particular type of plant can be identified by its paddle-like appearance and yellow, or pink, flowers. Spiny purple pears protrude from the tops of the pads and are usually present by late July.
Coloradans can find prickly pear cacti growing abundantly in sunny, dry spots. These fruit-bearing plants can even survive in the foothills and other areas with higher elevations. One location they are known to grow is throughout Colorado National Monument, as well as in the nearby canyons and surrounding areas. Locals have also spotted prickly pears in places like Golden, Dolores, and along Cherry Creek in Denver.
What's unique about purple-fruited prickly pears, is that they actually produce three different edible sections. This is a big reason why restaurants around the country have opted to use the refreshing fruit of these cacti for creative cocktails. The vibrant pears can also provide a good base for things like jellies and sauces. Additionally, the de-spined pads can be grilled or boiled as a green vegetable, and the flowers can also be added to salads.
Picking and collecting prickly pear fruit from the Colorado National Monument property is prohibited, but in places where it's not, it's totally legal to pluck a few from the cactus. Keep in mind though, that wildlife in the state largely depends on these versatile plants as a source of food and shelter.
If you do collect some of the ripened fruit, it's easy to use them for cooking or for a festive drink. It's best to use the pears when they are bright purple, just before they start to wrinkle.
Be sure to remove all of the spines before doing anything, you might even want to wear gloves - nothing is worse than trying to get those tiny prickers out of your fingers afterward! Duct tape works well should any of the hair-like spines get stuck in your skin.
After all the spines have been taken out, rinse the pears before cutting into them (this will also help to get out any remaining prickers). Skin the pair by first cutting off the ends, but try not to cut into the seed-filled center. Then cut lengthwise along the edges like you would if you were skinning an apple. Once the spines and skin have been removed, the pear is ready to eat.
Another way to use the sweet fruit is by squeezing the juice into a beverage, like champagne. It can be mixed into non-alcoholic drinks just the same for an equally beautiful effect.