Harvested in late summer in central and southern Mexico, prickly pears, the deliciously sweet fruit of the nopal cactus, are so rooted in Mexican folk culture it even appears on the country’s flag.

Known as “tuna” in Mexico, it grows at the tips of the cactus, where the fruit’s pink flesh serves as a food source for the cochineal, a small insect. This tiny bug is then dried and used as a natural dye source for crimson, a colour coveted in the region through pre-colonial to modern times.

The prickly pear cactus also grows wild throughout the deserts of the American Southwest, where its daunting, spine-covered branches are used as natural fencing for livestock. Although native to the Americas, the plant has spread throughout the world and thrives in Australia, Italy and southern Spain—where it’s known as a cactus fig or “chumbo.”

Traditionally eaten fresh or its juice sipped as a hangover cure, prickly pear fruit is growing in popularity due to its extraordinary pink colour, natural sweetness and antioxidant properties. And, while this ingredient has long been found everywhere in Mexico, from restaurants to road-side vendors, it’s now being incorporated into a variety of dishes around the globe.

Prickly Pear Equineox at Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley, Alberta

Photo courtesy of Eau Claire Distillery

The Prickly Pear Equineox vodka from Eau Claire Distillery, located in Turner Valley southwest of Calgary, Alta., is made from barley and is infused with citrus and the fruit of the opuntia polycantha cactus, which grows wild in southern Alberta. Sip the vodka over ice, or mix it with soda and lemon for a refreshing tipple.


Bingsu at Best Friend in Las Vegas

Photo by Jenn Smul

Sample this Asian-fusion dessert at the new Best Friend restaurant, inside Park MGM in Las Vegas, Nev. Created by executive pastry chef Philipe Angibeau, the fruity Bingsu features fresh dragon fruit, milk foam and prickly pear sorbet, which is made by infusing a classic sorbet with a prickly pear purée.


Prickly Pear Candy at The Cactus Candy Company in Phoenix

Photo courtesy of The Cactus Candy Company

The Cactus Candy Company on North 24th Street in Phoenix, Ariz., has been producing a variety of sweet treats—chocolate bars and taffy—made from the cactus since 1942. It extracts the succulent juice and then uses it to create jellies, licorice and other products such as honey infused with prickly pear syrup.


[This story appears in the June 2019 issue of WestJet Magazine]