When we bought our house five summers ago, we planted a cactus garden in a hard patch of caliche beneath our westward facing office windows. It seemed the only thing to do.
That little plot of land catches harsh afternoon sun all through the year, and that New Mexican soil won’t give an inch to shovels or hoes. Cacti are native. They belong in that dirt. And they’re equipped with self-defense tools…
…that would naturally repel potential intruders during our long absences abroad. No one wants to tangle with this garden.
We started with just a few paddles, but they quickly took hold. They multiplied and expanded with abandon. We’ve had cactus paddles, looking dead, lying on the ground, and poof! Up they come, alive with vigor, growing more paddles.
We don’t do anything for the cacti. We don’t fertilize. We don’t weed. We don’t even water, except for the rare hosing-down during the hottest months. They just grow. And every summer, they burst into bloom…
…welcoming native bees.
They are the desert’s gifts to us. And although we bought this yard with the hopes of growing our own food (and making our own wine), I never thought of that cactus patch as edible potential.
But look what’s come:
Every magenta bulb is a fruit called a tuna. Each one is full of juice, packed with antioxidants. They get their beautiful color from the same substance (betalains) as beets and bougainvillea. Desert dwellers have long eaten tunas to fight diabetes (and possibly, they’re good for hangovers too).
Yesterday, I noticed the tunas were starting to droop. Just as our peach tree this year bowed to the earth with the weight of its fruit, so too did our cactus paddles. I took tongs in hand and began to pluck the tunas, dozens upon dozens, until I had enough to fill a bucket. I will juice them this weekend. But it’s tricky business.
You saw those prickers above: each fruit also has its own set of fine, spine-like hairs known as glochids, which can work their way into your skin and take you by surprise. I’ve juiced tunas before: first, using market-bought fruits with no glochids; second, with a friend one night as we struggled for hours to remove the prickers. I’ve since been reading of a seemingly easier way. I’ll give it a shot.
Today is Food Day, and that’s exactly why I am telling you about tunas right here, right now. This day was established as a nationwide celebration of healthy, affordable, sustainable food. I can’t think of a better plant to honor than the humble cactus: It grows abundantly, without demands. It is the definition of sustainable. It seeks no more water than the desert can provide. It offers both beauty and protection. It nourishes bees, and it feeds our birds.
And now, it feeds us.
*A note on photo credits: Jerry took the flower & bee pictures in this post, I took the rest.