In Mexico, we spent a long morning hiking through the lovely, 220-acre jardin botanico that straddles a deep canyon on the edge of San Miguel de Allende.
This wide and windswept space is home to numerous species of cacti, succulents and low-growing flowers. Golden barrel cactus, rescued from a factory site, have been relocated to the park and painstakingly replanted — a daunting task, since some of these thorn-covered orbs weigh hundreds of pounds.
My favorite cactus, however, was the humble prickly pear (nopales). They show up here in Alabama as part of low-maintenance landscaping, rarely attaining more than two to three feet in height… but in central Mexico they mature as enormous treelike specimens. They are everywhere. And they are delicious.
As it turns out, the nopales is a Mexico native and its popularity as a dietary staple predates the arrival of the Spanish. The Europeans carried it home with them, and quickly its cultivation spread throughout the Mediterranean and North Africa. Loaded with vitamin C and natural fiber, it has lately become the focus of pharmaceutical studies because of beneficial effects on blood glucose levels. We ate the tart and tasty cactus flesh sauteed with onions and peppers (yum), grilled and combined with scrambled eggs (mmmm) and mixed into fried potatoes (ahhhhhh). I’m tempted to try incorporating a cactus patch into my vegetable garden plan!