The American southwest desert splays with various Cacti. Sometimes, when in this landscape, we get a little thirsty. You may have seen movies where actors drink Cacti water for emergency survival and might consider doing the same.
Why Have People Eaten Cactus in the Desert?
They are packed with vitamins C and A while other parts provide protein.
Many Cacti have medicinal and nutritional value, therefore people consume them and Native American people have harvested them for centuries. Some tribes even refer to them as family.
Is It Safe to Eat Cactus in the Desert?
Cacti from the desert can be very safe, but you must be certain. One false move and you can become very sick. At the very least, you could vomit or hallucinate, which won’t help with hydration.
Honestly, it’s a mistake to consider the Cactus a pure water source. If that were true, these desert plants wouldn’t survive a day in a landscape filled with thirsty animals looking for water. Many Cacti contain large amounts of acids and alkaloids that are far too acrid.
What Types of Cacti Are Safe to Eat?
Knowing which ones are safe will require some experience with plant identification. Find someone well-versed in desert botany to show you which ones are edible. Plus, not every desert in the world has digestible Cactus water.
If you’re in the American southwest, there is an edible Cactus or two safe for consumption.
Even then, it’s better to eat the Cactus fruit than the flesh. But, if you’re in southern Africa or Madagascar, the Cactus-like plants in these places are mostly toxic.
Prickly Pear Cactus Pads
Of the edible Cacti available, Prickly Pear is king. The Cactus pads, known as Nopals, are delicious cooked or raw as a side dish or part of a salad. Just remove the skin from the body to get rid of the thorns and enjoy! It’s also a wonderful syrup for margaritas, lemonade or candy.
Fishhook Barrel Cactus
The Fishhook Barrel Cactus is famous for its ability to provide an emergency water supply in small quantities. But, there are conflicting reports about drinking the water.
While it’s true it’s an edible Cactus, some people say that ingesting the juice can cause severe gastrointestinal issues that accelerate dehydration. But, it could be due to drinking the water on an empty stomach or having too much.
So, to be on the safe side, only eat the ripened yellow fruit. The flesh is slightly tart but it’s great raw or cooked. The seeds have excellent protein as a ground meal.
Many varieties of Cholla have nutritious parts. The most common being the ripened Cactus pads, young non-woody joints, and immature flower buds.
Before you taste the strawberry-like flavor of these desert plants, the thorns must come off. These are very sharp, so observe caution when harvesting.
In small amounts, Cholla is fine to consume raw, but they can cause gastrointestinal upset. So, it’s advisable to cook them first, which makes them taste a little like kiwi.
Saguaros have ruby-red Cactus fruits that are only ripe in late June. These are full of pulp and seeds with a faint strawberry flavor.
They’re good raw but best when made into wine, syrup, or jam. Plus, you have to have a long stick when harvesting because these desert plants are very tall and towering.
Which Cactuses Are Poisonous?
Almost all cactus plants have a noxious jelly-like fluid containing alkaloids and acids that can cause diarrhea, kidney problems, abdominal pain, vomiting, joint pain, body aches, and, in some cases, temporary paralysis.
Consumption of water in an emergency situation will be at one’s own risk because none of these are conducive to survival. What’s more, there are some hallucinogenic species because of the presence of Mescaline.
So, while you may be able to identify a plant as an Opuntia Cactus species of Prickly Pear, it might actually be the Beavertail Cactus plant. Although in the same family, you will take a psychedelic trip down a hallucinogenic lane you may not want to take.
So, there are some Cacti you can consume but it should only be a last resort. You have to know what you’re doing and be 300% certain of what one you have. Your best bet is to consume the Cactus pads rather than the flesh.
Here’s a better survival tip. When looking for drinking water in a desert survival situation, try to find a canyon or closed-stone structure.
There’s a possibility of condensation build-up by the natural shade provided by the stones. This will be safer to drink than Cactus water.