When you are in any kind of survival situation, you’re wants and preferences are probably going to go out the window in service of the raw necessity of doing what is necessary to stay alive.
This will certainly be the case when it comes to sourcing food in the wild to eat.
There are all kinds of things that are edible in the strictest sense, but we would otherwise never consider eating.
It is best to familiarize yourself with them now so that you’ll know what’s safe and what’s not when the time comes.
How about a cactus? They are common and grow all over the place in many arid climates, but can you eat them in a survival situation?
Yes, the fruit of most cactus species can be eaten safely, as can the pads of a few. Great care must be taken when harvesting and preparing cactus to eat to avoid injury.
Cacti are most known for their stereotypical coat of sharp, dense spines or prickles, and though some only necessitate a little care in handling others are absolutely medieval and can easily inflict serious injury.
Nonetheless, they might be worth the trouble if that is all you have to eat. Keep reading to learn more.
Where Do Cacti Grow?
Cacti (or cactuses, if you prefer) occur predominantly in the western hemisphere, being native to the Americas.
With a few exceptions, they are found in desert environments that are prone to drought, although certain species live in and tolerate humid environments quite well.
Cacti varieties reach all the way from the southern tip of South America to parts of western Canada, though a couple of species are found in Africa and around the Indian Ocean.
Cacti come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and the family contains more than 1,700 known species with a huge variety in their appearance.
Luckily, most cacti are not dangerous even if they aren’t truly edible, and the vast majority of cacti that produce fruit produce edible fruit, with several of these species also producing edible flesh in the form of pads or the body of the cactus.
Wherever you live, or wherever you happen to be working or traveling, it is a great idea to familiarize yourself with the cacti species in the area so you can quickly make sense of them and know which ones are edible, or at the minimum which ones are worth the trouble to try and harvest.
What Kinds of Cacti are Edible?
Out of all the various species of cacti in the world, edible cacti are pretty few in number.
This is not necessarily because all the others are inedible in the strictest sense, but they might either be way too much trouble to try and harvest owing to many prodigious spines, or else they flat out have a disgusting taste or texture.
Again, a good rule of thumb is that any cactus which produces a fleshy fruit produces fruit that is nominally edible.
The most commonly encountered species of cactus that are good eating include the barrel cactus, the chocolate cactus, the Indian fig cactus, the dragon fruit cactus, and the prickly pear, the latter of which and the Indian fig cactus both produce edible pads and fruit, and are further notable for being cultivated as food for many centuries by people living in and around their ranges.
Depending on where you live, you might be able to find the flesh or fruit of these cacti for sale in a major or ethnic supermarket, or else being sold at restaurants that specialize in the associated cuisine. Be sure to try them if you can!
Accurate nutritional info for the variety of cactus species is completely unavailable or very difficult to come by.
However, for the pads of the Indian fig cactus we do have good nutritional info and we’ll use these as our baseline.
As it turns out, cactus isn’t quite as nutritious as you might think, though it is a worthwhile food and can definitely keep you alive.
The pads of the Indian fig cactus contain a little bit of protein and carbs, with some water and that’s it.
The vitamin and mineral profile is similarly limited but nothing you should pass on in a survival situation.
Vitamin C is the most prevalent, followed by vitamin A, vitamin B6 and most of the other B vitamins, including B1, B3, B2, and B5 with a notable exception of B12 which is not present. You’ll also get folate and vitamin k in the bargain in very limited amounts.
The mineral content comes out significantly better, with a great amount of manganese, calcium, and magnesium, a good shot of potassium and iron, and a little bit of phosphorus sodium, zinc, and selenium.
Cacti are also notable for containing a good amount of copper, and the Indian fig species is no exception.
Overall, cactus certainly cannot be considered a superfood, but it is definitely food, and when prepared right is a nutritious and wholesome meal that can keep you alive.
How Does Cactus Taste?
The taste of cactus, pads, and fruit, varies significantly. Most have a crunchy, slightly sticky texture similar to a bell pepper, and can be sour or tangy.
What are Nopales?
Nopales are the edible pads of the prickly pear cactus and they are a popular ingredient in Mexican cuisine.
You have probably seen them pop up at groceries from time to time, though most commonly in the American Southwest. They also come canned.
Typically prepared by boiling, they are either served as a side dish with various seasonings or else added to dishes like tacos and stews.
The taste is quite unique and earthy with a slightly sweet aftertaste not unlike that of green beans.
They can also be eaten raw, though it is worth noting that the texture might not be to everyone’s taste!
Can You Eat Cactus Pads?
Yes, of most species, though only a few are good eating. The most commonly encountered edible species include the barrel cactus, the Indian fig cactus, and the prickly pear. All of these produce edible pads which can be prepared in a variety of ways.
Is Cactus Skin Edible?
Yes, usually. Some cactus pads are more palatable after being peeled, but most benefit from leaving the skin on to help give them structure and a firm texture.
Can You Eat Cactus Fruit?
Yes, as a general rule. The majority of cacti that produce fleshy fruit are safe and edible, and most are even pretty tasty. Some are sour or have a disagreeable taste, but are nonetheless wholesome and nutritious.
Can you Eat Cactus Flowers?
Yes, cactus flowers are edible, though as usual some varieties are more palatable than others.
How About Cactus Roots?
Yes, assuming that the cactus is a safe species the roots are also edible, though they provide very little in the way of substance or nutrition, typically.
Most species’ roots are very shallow and close to the surface so they won’t be difficult to access.
Are Cactus Spines Edible?
No. Remove the spines from the cactus, and do so carefully. The spines are in reality modified leaves and serve some of the same purposes for the cactus as they do for other plants, such as shading as well as protection from herbivores.
Unfortunately, these protective features must be laboriously removed before you can eat the cactus and, depending on the species, it can be a major job and a little dangerous. Some spines are soft, small, and bendy while others are hard and dagger-sharp.
In any case, they are definitely not edible! Remove and discard or re-purpose.
Are There Any Health Risks from Eating Cactus?
No, assuming the cactus is healthy and non-toxic. The biggest concern when eaten as a staple over time is malnutrition since cacti are nowhere close to nutritionally complete for humans.
Another concern, in some areas, is the profoundly toxic nature of some cacti species, namely the infamous peyote which contains potent hallucinogens.
Accidentally eating a toxic cactus can be a very unpleasant and potentially fatal experience, so it’s best to stick to known non-toxic species.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.