In preparation of entertaining some guests soon, I put my roommates to work to clean up our neglected, yet promising, backyard over the past weekend. Much of the vegetation in our backyard view is borrowed (thanks neighbors!), but one particurly giant prickly pear cactus has been feeling very friendly of late, dropping its prickly paddles in heaps into our yard. I wondered if I had any right to stake claim to the cactus considering it had creeped over so far into our yard.

Photos by Jessica Roberts

Opuntia, the prickly pear cactus, has historically been used as a living fence to denote boundaries and to keep in livestock. But it turns out in California any encroachment across property lines permits ownership of any branches reaching onto your property , including fruits and nuts that might be on said branch. So in this case, this cactus isn’t dividing but uniting neighbors.

Later that day while shopping at an Armenian grocery store nearby, I noticed a few women stocking up on prickly pear fruit. Although widely spread to many areas of the arid Western United States, I realized I didn’t know very much about the traditional uses of the plant. I learned the fruit is edible, but you must be careful to remove the spines on the skin or risk painful irritation. The young stems can also be eaten and are called nopales in Mexico. A fermented cactus beverage known as bebida de tibicos (also known as water kefir) can be made with the prickly pear fruit, the fermentation process kickstarted by the microorganism culture found on the tibicos granillos, or hard granules, growing on the cactus paddles and fruits.

My guests don’t know what they are in for! I’m just kidding…I won’t be serving any fermented experiments just yet.

Water kefir photos from Wild Drinks & Cocktails by Emily Han and Gregory Han. Courtesy of Fair Winds Press

Living in California has made way for a plethora of edibles to forage in the urban environment, some more obvious than others. Back in grad school one of my roommates created a resource called the C-U Fruit Map which mapped edible fruits and nuts in the public right of way in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Clicking on the geotagged icons across the map gives names and descriptions of each mapped edible, presenting a whole new way to navigate and experience the city.

But remember to forage responsibly! It is always important to consider the effects of your foraging habits, being aware not to deplete the local food sources of wildlife that may depend on fruits and leaves throughout the year. Which also reminds me of another guy who had collected the fruits of the invasive Elaeagnus umbellata – aka the autumn olive – to make fruit leather using its tart, brightly colored, and highly nutritious berries (with 7-17x higher amount of  lycopene than tomatoes!). He had made a nutritious snack while also culling the spread of an aggressive shrub.

Hmmm…I wonder what other problem plants can be put to use in Los Angeles?

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