Late Spring on the Sandhill

The spurge nettle has been blooming for weeks, biting at my ankles and stinging the dog’s nose when he chases after his favorite ball. As far as you can see across the open field are small white blossoms, looking so lovely and belying their nasty nature. During the past few weeks, the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) blossoms have begun to open, dotting the field with yellow.

Surely a time of year to watch where you step!

Cnidoscolus stimulosus, also known as tread softly, has stinging hairs on every part, save its deep underground tubers: the stem, leaves, flowers, even the seed capsules and buds bite! Definitely a plant with

Cnidoscolus stimulosus
Spurge Nettle
a protection issue.

Spurge nettle is decidedly a survival food as the edible part is easily three or four feet underground and most expedient way to extract it is with a post hole digger. But tubers are delicious when boiled twice (discarding the water between boilings) and mashed with butter and a little salt. You’ll want to push them through or sieve or put up with dragging the tough fibers out while eating them.

Opuntia is another unlikely candidate for a meal, except perhaps to a gopher tortoise, for whom this plant is a delicacy. Prickly pear cactus, though, is a traditional food in many cultures and was consumed regularly by the native people of this land.

Clearly special preparation techniques are in order. There are several ways to prepare cactus pears (the red pear-shaped fruit) once you have carefully collected them. You can “pressure” wash them with a hose, which removes most the hairy glochids, but even after that handle with care because those hairs are so tiny it is difficult to see if any are left. You can then simmer them, mash, and drain for the juice, which will be red and can be made into a beverage, jelly, or candy.

prickly-pear-cactus
Note that The red fruits of the plant are a diuretic, but note that they turn the urine red, which can be alarming to those who have not previously eaten it.

The pads can also be prepared and eaten. Choose young healthy succulent pads. You can remove the spines and glochids by singing them. First cut out the spines in the same manner that you would cut eyes out of a potato. Next, blanch them in boiling water to remove the skin. Slice into long thin pieces and simmer in water until tender. Or cut them in smaller pieces and scramble with eggs, a method recommended by an acquaintance from Mexico who said that’s how his mother prepared them when he was a child.

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One Response

  1. Thanks so much for this excellent and informative blog.

    Posted on July 18th, 2009 at 12:41 pm

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