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Desert Diary


Let's talk about tunas of the Chihuahuan Desert. No, not the finny kind--they don't do well without water. What we're talking about are prickly pear cacti. These plants of the genus Opuntia are characterized by flat, jointed stems, whose segments are called pads, and clusters of glochids—fine, barbed spines easy to acquire and difficult to remove. Most species also are well armed with larger spines.

Despite the formidable armament, both the pads (nopalitos when sold for preparation as a vegetable) and the fruit (also known as tunas) are widely utilized by man and beast. Packrats negotiate the bristling plants with seeming impunity, while peccaries munch away happily, ignoring the spines.

The ripe, red fruits are utilized in a variety of ways by people. They may be eaten as is (after careful removal of glochids, of course) or used for salads, or prepared as syrup or jam. They even can be fermented to make wine. Nothing at all fishy about our tunas, but they provide a welcome variety to desert diets.
pen and ink


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

cactus and fruit

Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia phaeacanthus), pads and fruit. Photograph by Wynn Anderson.