Let’s Get to the Fruit of the Matter: Prickly Pear Harvesting 101

Editors Note: We have reworded the paragraph regarding where to harvest prickly pear fruit here in Tucson. We would like to apologize for not including the very relevant fact that harvesting prickly pear fruit has been a traditional practice for generations for Native Americans. We are thankful for the continued education and shared knowledge from Native American people. Please note that Native Americans have harvesting rights in many National Parks. To be specific, members of the Tohono O’odham Nation have harvesting rights and agreements in Saguaro National Park (https://bit.ly/2ku2zyF).

To learn more about the Tohono O’odham Nation please visit: http://www.tonation-nsn.gov or download the app Native Land to learn about your local indigenous groups.


It’s the most wonderful time of the yearrrr!!

Nope, it’s not the holidays yet (though we do wish the heat would quite literally chill out), it’s prickly pear fruit harvesting season!

Have you always wanted to create your own prickly pear syrup? How about sharing the fruits of your labor with your friends poolside while sipping on a prickly pear margarita or lemonade? August through early September is the best time of year to harvest this juicy gift from the desert and we decided to give it a go for ourselves and share our tips and tricks!

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How do I prepare to harvest prickly pear?

  • Slather on the sunscreen (we mean it, and don’t forget to reapply)
  • Wear pants/long sleeves/hat/close-toed shoes
  • Bring water/snack
  • Be observant, watch out for animals that may be resting in the shade (like rattlesnakes!)

PRO TIP: Get up early! We know it’s not fun but we promise it’s worth it. (Also the desert is absolutely stunning first thing in the AM.)

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What tools will I need to harvest?

  • Tongs (VERY important, don’t kid yourself you will get glochids (those tiny spines you can barely see))
  • Gloves (if you’re worried about getting glochids, gloves can be a lifesaver as they can go airborne)
  • Collecting bucket (a 5 gallon plastic bucket will work just fine)

PRO TIP: You can throw your clothes/gloves in the washing machine (with hot water) after use if there are glochids in them.

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Where can I harvest Prickly Pear fruit from?

  • Your own backyard
  • Neighbors yards (ask permission first, invite your neighbor out with you -make it a community event!)
  • Around town and on roadsides
  • It is illegal to harvest from National Parks. Make sure to contact local land agencies before harvesting from any parks/wild areas. *Please note that Native Americans have harvesting rights in many National Parks. Specifically, members of the Tohono O’odham Nation have harvesting rights and agreements in Saguaro National Park (https://bit.ly/2ku2zyF). *

PRO TIP: Avoid major roadways to reduce the dirt/vehicle emissions that will likely collect on the fruit.

PRO TIP #2: Ensure you are harvesting responsibly. This means not taking ALL fruit from one plant to allow other animals to enjoy the deliciousness too!

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How do I select the best fruit?

  • To select a ripe fruit, look for a slight indentation when you gently squeeze the fruit while on the plant.
  • If there are white fuzzy-looking spots on the fruit, fear not! This is a protective covering for the cochineal insect which is used to make dye. Just wipe off the cochineal and collect the fruit. (Or, just avoid these fruits and let the cochineal live to see another day!)
  • Avoid spoiled looking fruit.

PRO TIP: Once detached, the bottom of the fruit should have a white or pink ring on the bottom.

How much prickly pear should I harvest?

  • Depends on what you are wanting to make but we gathered around five pounds of fruit which created 3/4 of a gallon of prickly pear juice

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Okay, now I have a surplus of fruit (and a few spines in my hands), what do I need to process the fruit?

  • Cheesecloth or an old cotton t-shirt
  • Strainer/Collander
  • Bowls
  • Container to put prickly pear juice in

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Finally, how do I get the juice out of the fruit?

  1. Put some fruit in a bucket, add water and shake
    • This helps get rid of the majority of the spines and the dirt/insects
  2. Repeat this process 1-2x more
  3. Pick which way you would like to process the fruit:
    1. Puree in a blender or food processor (recommended for quick preparation or when juicing large quantities of fruit)
      • Cut each fruit in half and puree (if the fruit is ripe, no extra liquid is necessary, otherwise add a few tablespoons of water)
      • Pour this mixture through a strainer to get rid of seeds and bigger spines
      • Repeat process with finer mesh strainers
      • Filter the final juice through a cotton t-shirt or cheesecloth (or a pillowcase can be used for the last strain)
      • Simmer the juice for 5 minutes to improve preservation
    2. Freeze (breaks down the pulp)
      • Place clean fruit in a paper bag and into the freezer for 1-2 days
      • Put fruit in a colander suspended over a bowl while it is defrosting
      • Gently press each fruit, releasing the juice into the bowl below
      • Filter the final juice through a cotton t-shirt or cheesecloth (or a pillowcase can be used for the last strain)
      • Simmer the juice for 5 minutes to improve preservation
    3. Boil (breaks down the pulp and kills microbes)
      • Cut each fruit into quarters and place into a large pot
      • If the fruit is ripe when picked , no extra liquid is necessary, otherwise add enough water to start a boil
      • Simmer covered, for 15-25 minutes until fruit is softened
      • Use a potato masher to loosen the pulp and get the juice out
      • Pour this mixture through a strainer to get rid of seeds and bigger spines
      • Repeat process with finer mesh strainers
      • Filter the final juice through a cotton t-shirt or cheesecloth (or a pillowcase can be used for the last strain)
      • Simmer the juice for 5 minutes to improve preservation

PRO TIP: We experimented by using a juicer and it worked like MAGIC! Obviously, not everyone has a juicer so we recommend the blender/food processor method for “quick” access to the juice.

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What do I do with all of this liquid gold?

  • Fridge
    • The syrup will last about a week in the fridge
  • Freezer
    • The syrup can last about a year in the freezer
  • Create a delicious drink or dish!

PRO TIP: Put the juice in ice cube trays and freeze. It is super easy to pop out a few cubes to use in your next recipe.  

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Do you have any fun drink ideas?

  • Prickly Pear Punch
    • Ingredients:
      • 1 qt Prickly Pear Juice
      • 4 tbsp sugar
      • 1 qt carbonated water
      • 4 tsp lemon or lime juice (optional)
        • Mix all ingredients together until sugar is dissolved.
        • Serve over ice and enjoy!
  • Prickly Pear Margaritas
    • Ingredients:
      • 2 oz of your favorite tequila
      • 1 oz of Triple Sec
      • 2 oz of sweet and sour mix
      • 1 oz of prickly pear juice
      • squeeze of fresh lime
        • Mix all ingredients together and serve over ice in a margarita glass.
        • Salt the rim if desired.
        • Enjoy!

Do you have any other insight or hints that you found helpful when you were processing prickly pear fruit? Leave them in the comments below!

 

Written by ASDM Media & Marketing Specialist: Lauren Belcher


6 thoughts on “Let’s Get to the Fruit of the Matter: Prickly Pear Harvesting 101

  1. Using the tongs, put the pears on a grill (or your gas stove burner) for a few seconds, until the skin turns gloss. Turn so all sides have been “glossed”, and the glochids will be gone. It’s still a good idea to handle them with the tongs, but you won’t get glochids airborne!

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  2. Great post! PLEASE amend it to reflect the fact that in fact, Native folks often *do* have the right to harvest fruit on Parks land–just no one else does. I know “no one” is easier to remember, but erasing the rights of Native people in your writing leads to them experiencing unwarranted and potentially dangerous harassment as they exercise their prerogative to maintain their relationship with the land as they have done since long before national parks were here. It’s irresponsible, and it’s on all of us to do the work of accepting and verbally acknowledging the complexities of the situation in order not to create unintended harm for others.

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  3. I’m glad to see that everything my hubby and I figured out is exactly how this article recommends! We’ve tried it two different seasons. We definitely recommend the time consuming peeling of the skin. It made the juice taste much better and less earthy! We used a juicer and it works amazingly well.

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  4. I have been making Prickly Pear Jelly for 3 years now and have had much success. One year, we decided to speed up the process by using a food processor instead of cutting the fruit before boiling. This was the only difference from earlier years yet all the jelly from that year’s juice had an odd taste. Has anyone else experienced this?

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  5. I am making prickly pear jelly and I do not use the juicer or blender or any of that. I just burn off the stickers then wash them a couple times and cut ends off and slice in quarters and put in a pot with water just covering them and boil for 20 -30 min then strain and it makes the most beautiful juice to make jelly or syrup. Hope
    Everyone enjoys there prickly pair stuff.

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