Every year, as summer wanes across South-Central Texas, Mother Nature reveals her country colors through prickly purple cactus pears. As the official state plant of Texas, prickly pear cacti are a common sight, but watching their fruit, called tunas, turn purple is a sign of the shifting seasons. (While the prickly pear cactus grows prolifically in deserts across the Southwest, various species of prickly pear cacti can also be found across the deep South, from South Carolina to Florida and Mississippi.)
My family and I recently harvested our first prickly pears at our ranch in the Texas Hill Country. With long steel tongs, we set out on foot to pluck the purple tunas, wary of their miniscule spiny hairs called glochids. These barbed spines are challenging to see, but they are easy to feel—and often difficult to remove.
Throughout northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States, people have eaten cactus and cactus fruits for thousands of years. In South Texas, they are an indelible part of the country landscape and a staple in many locals’ lives. In cities like Laredo on the Texas-Mexico border, street vendors still sell them raw and chilled on blocks of ice as a refreshing, nutritious snack.
Back at the ranch, we assessed our morning harvest. With gloved hands, we prepared the prickly pears, carefully peeling their thorny skin, blending the fruit, and separating the seeds and the pulp with a fine-mesh sieve. Prickly pears are actually berries, and they are a great source of nutrients, including magnesium, potassium, calcium, and vitamin C. Their kiwi-like consistency boasts a flavor that’s both sweet and tangy, with notes of melon and concord grape. But of all its characteristics, it’s the fruit’s phenomenal color that lingers in memory. Depending on the maturity of the tuna, the color can be electric pink or a deep, regal purple. We stirred our hard-earned, jewel-colored juice into margaritas for happy hour that evening, pulling the last bristly spines from our fingertips.
The San Antonio native James Vives of Brushfire Farms knows the toils of prickly pear preparation all too well. While today his award-winning Pear Burner preserve, made with hand-harvested chile pequins and prickly pears, is one of his best-selling products, reaping the fruits of his labor took Vives both time and experimentation.
“Boy oh boy was that trial and error,” he says, remembering his early prickly pear harvesting days. “You have to get down and get in it. You have to work for them.”
This month, the entrepreneur released a new Prickly Pear Simple Syrup designed to complement everything from desserts to sparkling water and festive libations. “It looks like a neon sign is in it,” he says of the bottle and the prickly pear potion within.
For Texans, prickly pear cacti are more than just native plants. Harvesting their super fruits is an age-old tradition. As summer gives way to fall, the chameleonic tunas turn from pale green to bright pink and dark purple, reminding us that nature is ever-changing, and that beneath life’s thorns, something sweet awaits.