Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Prickly pear cactus fruit

with 26 comments

Prickly Pear Tuna 4796

Late summer is a time to remind you that the edible fruits of the prickly pear cactus, Opuntia engelmanniii, which turn a rich red or magenta when they ripen at this time of year, are called tunas.* I don’t know what caused the dark mark near the base of this one, but I do know that the photograph is from a jaunt to the west of Morado Circle in my Great Hills neighborhood of Austin on August 22nd, exactly one month ago today, the official beginning of fall. Happy autunal (au-tuna-l or autumnal, take your pick) equinox to you.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


* In a post a couple of years ago I noted that the prickly pear kind of tuna came into English from Spanish, but Spanish acquired it from the Taíno people of the Caribbean. Their word for the cactus fruit survived; they themselves didn’t.

Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 22, 2013 at 6:07 AM

26 Responses

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  1. Hmmm….you mean they aren’t manufactured food for the special foods shelf in the gourmet section of our supermarket? 🙂 Some opuntias are able to grow here in the north, but I’ve never seen one fruiting. I’ve had a couple as houseplants but no fruiting on them either.
    An interesting story….I am sure you must have noticed how easily the little spines stick into our skin and how irritating that can be. I once met a blind cactus growing enthusiast. He familiarized himself with the plants by touch and was so well tuned in that sense that not a single opuntia prickly hair stick to his skin.

    Steve Gingold

    September 22, 2013 at 6:18 AM

  2. Wow…… quelle photo magnifique, on a envie de goûter.. Nous avons des Opuntias par ici mais les fruits ne poussent pas à moins de les rentrer et je n’en ai jamais vu de si gros.
    bon dimanche Steve


    September 22, 2013 at 6:45 AM

    • Il y a plein de tunas mûres à Austin maintenant, Chantal. Tu devrais venir les voir et goûter.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 22, 2013 at 7:07 AM

  3. I had no idea these were edible. Live and learn… Thank you!


    September 22, 2013 at 6:51 AM

    • I Hope you get a chance to try one. As Steve G. mentioned in his comment, you can find tunas of the cactus kind in supermarkets that have gourmet produce sections, and they’re also often available in Latin American markets.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 22, 2013 at 6:59 AM

  4. We saw a PP cactus on our walk near Stillwater, OK, Saturday. No red fruit on it, tho.

    After breakfast, we start our drive back to IA. We had a nice visit with Son.


    Jim in IA

    September 22, 2013 at 6:58 AM

    • Sorry you didn’t get to see any red tunas in Oklahoma. They seem to be at their peak in Austin now (though I’m writing this from Ft. Worth).

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 22, 2013 at 7:13 AM

  5. After the rains, it’s a crisp 66 this morning in Houston. Yes, autumn is coming!


    September 22, 2013 at 7:13 AM

    • In Austin this morning the temperature was similar, 64°. I’m in Ft. Worth now, 200 miles north of Austin, and here the temperature at 7AM was only 56°. Happy beginning of autumn indeed!

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 22, 2013 at 7:23 AM

  6. So what do they taste like? I have seen these (South Africa and in southern Europe) but have never been tempted to eat one – I avoid things that sting or prick!
    Jude xx


    September 22, 2013 at 7:41 AM

    • They’re something like pomegranates. You’re right that you have to be careful to remove the little spines first because you certainly wouldn’t want any in your lips or mouth.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 22, 2013 at 8:19 AM

  7. I like their color and textures.

    M. Firpi

    September 22, 2013 at 9:45 AM

    • Me too. The color can get quite saturated when a tuna matures, as this one has, and as many others have been doing around Austin.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 22, 2013 at 5:45 PM

  8. Steve, What are the white protuberances on the tuna? thanks, Kathy

    Kathy Henderson

    September 22, 2013 at 12:58 PM

    • Each white area is a center for a cluster of glochids, those hair-like barbs that are more insidious than the larger spines. If you look closely, you can still see some of the brownish glochids among the white protuberances.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 22, 2013 at 5:47 PM

  9. I have one of these growing in my yard but never gave any thought to eating it! That’s really interesting to know. I may have to try one!

    Michael Glover

    September 22, 2013 at 1:23 PM

  10. I have some in my fruit bowl at the moment. I love them but I have obtained them very mundanely from our supermarket.


    September 22, 2013 at 2:40 PM

    • It’s nice that you have some in France, even if they came from a source as mundane as a supermarket. That’s true here, too, because most people who eat tunas don’t have access to them on their own properties or in the wild

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 22, 2013 at 5:49 PM

  11. How do you eat the fruit? I bought one from a grocery store and it was entirely filled with seeds. The juice or pulp surrounding the seeds was sweet, but trying to suck the juice from the small seeds was much more trouble than it was worth. The only way I could think of to use the fruit would have been to wash the edible part from the seeds with water and then boil the water away.


    September 22, 2013 at 4:04 PM

  12. A fellow west of you, nearer Amarillo, posted some photos of his “harvest” this year. He said he’d never seen such an abundance of the fruit. Jelly-making’s on his agenda. Your photo is gorgeous. It captures the texture so beautifully.


    September 22, 2013 at 5:02 PM

    • A couple of weeks after I photographed this one I found a prickly pear that had several bunches of richly ripe tunas in curved rows that followed the contours of the edges of the cactus pads. Since then I’ve been seeing ripe fruits in other parts of town, and even on the prickly pear along the street that leads in and out of my neighborhood. My observation agrees with that of the fellow closer to Amarillo. Not a season goes by but that some species is having a banner year; this seems to be the prickly pear’s turn.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 22, 2013 at 6:02 PM

  13. What better way, then, to celebrate the au-tuna-l equinox in Texas than with a prickly pear Margarita? ¡Salud!


    September 23, 2013 at 11:22 AM

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