Killing Rumors, One Experiment At A Time

In an essay reprinted in the collection Bully For Brontosaurus, the late Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould brought up the seeming anomaly of referring to the early “dawn horse” Eohippus (known today as Hyracotherium) as being the size of a fox terrier, and how this strange analogy kept perpetuating through science textbooks and popular science writing for nearly a century. The question wasn’t so much wondering why this was repeated over and over by lazy writers, but wondering “why an obscure dog breed like a fox terrier, and not an animal commonly encountered by average people, such as a cat?” (The story of this analogy is a fascinating look into palaeontology in the late Nineteenth Century, and this alone is worth the cost of the book’s purchase. Don’t just stop there, though: the title essay still makes an excellent point twenty years after its publication. But I digress.)

This sort of repetition without verification runs through many natural history references, particularly any such references involving Texas natural history. By way of example, while engaging in further research into the West Texas barrel cactus Echinocactus texensis, most of its common names make sense. “Horsecrippler” is both self-explanatory and extremely accurate, and “Devil’s footstool” works as well. However, it was also referred to as “candy cactus” in many areas of its range, and popular guides declared with authority that “early settlers used to make candy from the fruit.”

Now, speaking from experience, there is such a thing as cactus candy. Specifically, it’s candied prickly pear fruit or sometimes young prickly pear pads. In fact, entrepreneurs make a whole list of interesting food items from Opuntia cactus fruit. These can range from toasted halved fruit, commonly called “tuna” through the state, to jellies, syrups, and even margaritas. Considering the voluminous output of Opuntia fruit when it goes ripe in October, that’s not surprising. The problem comes when well-meaning amateurs hear about prickly pear jelly, figure “I can do this, too,” and fire up the old double boiler to make a batch with a bushel basket of fresh fruit. That’s when they discover a very valuable lesson: there’s not that much in the way of flavor in cactus fruit.

Now don’t get me wrong. Based on what few nutritional estimates are available, cactus fruit is good for you. The problem is that it’s generally not intended for us mammals. Much like chile peppers, the main vector for cactus seeds is the gut of any number of birds, all of which spot the bright colors on ripe fruit and rush down to take advantage of the bounty. Since birds are rather lacking in taste buds, their interest in the fruit comes from the color, so natural selection didn’t swing on flavors. Today, the only commercially raised cactus fruit come from either Opuntia or the various dragonfruit species (Hylocereus spp.), and even dragonfruit junkies such as myself would never describe them as particularly vibrant in flavor.

But the “candy cactus” appellation kept gnawing at me, so it was time to experiment. Trying a sole ripe fruit was a chore, as it combined a thick rind with tough black seeds with all of the flavor and consistency of freshly washed aquarium gravel. It was just sweet enough, though, that I could see this being used to make candy, if only one collected enough fruit. This spring’s odd weather produced enough fruit, and all of the E. texensis at the Triffid Ranch went mad this year.

Cactus fruit on the plant

As another sign that the cactus needs bird and not mammal sowers of its seed, ripe horsecrippler fruit is both attractive and repellent. The attraction comes from the brilliance of the rind, obviously, but it’s not easy to reach. The shriveled corolla from the bloom is as spiky and irritating as a dried thistle bloom, and a lot stronger. Meanwhile, the fruit itself is covered with tufts of what looks and feels like freshly spun fiberglass, and I imagine that it tastes much the same. I could see, and have seen, crows and bluejays ripping apart the fruit to get at the pulp, but I could see the corolla stopping anything short of the hungriest cow or pig.

Fruit on Davros

As I mentioned, this was a good year for horsecrippler cactus fruit. Even the monstrous cristate cactus we nicknamed “Davros” bore fruit this year. These were kept separate from the rest: most popular reports on cristate cacti note that any seed they produce is nonviable, and this is going to be tested next. Considering what I learned next, it’s understandable that I plan to verify any assumption about this plant with direct observation.

Plucking cactus fruit

Between corolla and micturating hairs, E. texensis fruit isn’t something you want to grab with bare hands, and most cactus-resistant gloves are a bit too clumsy for something as squishy as these. Anyone who works with cactus knows that a pair of standard kitchen tongs belongs in the toolkit, and they came in extremely handy during harvesting. Get a good grip on the corolla of a ripe fruit, wiggle a bit, and it pops free like a bad tooth.

Plucked cactus fruit

A closeup of a plucked fruit shows its various anti-mammal defenses. Those spines and hairs could still be stuck in my hand.

Gathered cactus fruit

Okay, give twenty minutes to denude the horsecripplers, and the bounty shows a basic flaw in the logic of these being used for candy. These cacti are kept in special soil mixes and fertilized on a regular basis, so they produce significantly more fruit than what a typical horsecrippler in the wild grows every spring. In fact, from personal observation, I’ve never noticed more than three fruit on a wild horsecrippler at any one time. Considering that horsecripplers spread out over a large range, anyone wanting to collect these for candy would have to walk a lot to get enough to make it worth the time. Either the candy finally produced was the greatest taste sensation ever produced in this state, the diet of a typical West Texas settler was so insanely monotonous that horsecrippler fruit was a godsend from a steady menu of chicken-fried steak and pinto beans, or…or the nickname “candy cactus” came from the fruit’s vague resemblance to wrapped candies and not from the flavor after all. Well, time to test.

Washed cactus fruit

After chilling the fruit in the refrigerator overnight, it’s time to see what we can get out of them. Before anything else, washing is vital, as it washes away those irritant hairs along with bird crap, bug crap, dust, dirt, air pollution, and the occasional dead stinkbug hiding within the fruit. Rinse it a bit, and it’s time for processing.

Snipping cactus corollas

As mentioned before, the seeds in horsecrippler fruit have all of the appeal and attractiveness of fresh aquarium gravel, and they’re about as easy on the teeth. I’ll bet that they’re chock full of vitamins A and D from oils therein, but without a metate, said oils are a bit hard to access. Therefore, this experiment involved pureeing the fruit, straining out the seeds, and working from there. Since the corollas are about as delectable as the seeds, each and every one needed to be snipped off with a pair of kitchen shears beforehand. That’s another reason why washing the fruit beforehand helps out, as it softens the spines and edges on the corollas, making this activity a lot less onerous than it could be.

Smoothie machine

For the actual pureeing, I had several options, but the best involved an old smoothie maker I purchased a decade back. Not only did it have blades specifically designed for liquefying fruit of all sorts, but it had a convenient stirring rod to help get chunks of fruit into the path of the blades. Even better, it also had a spigot for draining off the juice if the pulp and seeds floated to the top.

Cactus fruit in blender

Drop in the fruit, close and lock the cover, turn it on, and we get…

The smoothie maker aftermath

…glop too thick to pour through the spigot. However, it has a great color, suggesting a high nutritional content, and it can be poured into a strainer.

Pureed cactus fruit

Well, so much for the idea of the seeds floating to the top. The whole mix went into a fine strainer to draw off the juice, with the hope that it might produce enough to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

Cactus juice

Yeah. Sure. After draining overnight, all that effort produced maybe a cup of juice, with said juice being about as appetizing as the seeds. This might improve when heated to break down starches into sugars, but anyone expecting an insane flavor sensation might want to keep walking, if you know what I mean.

Drained cactus pomace

There’s also the pomace, which isn’t enough to put to some particularly innovative use as with grape pomace left over from wine production. However, the tangling with the smoothie maker blades probably scarified the seeds to where they’re more likely to germinate, so they’re getting dried and then spread in the original ranchland where they originated. The experiment was a failure, but at least it might help perpetuate this fascinating cactus in the wild.

Well, the initial experiment was a failure, but there’s still that juice to work with. If nothing else, it’s going into a batch of homemade ice cream, and a select group just might be the only humans ever to state, with photographic proof, that they’ve eaten horsecrippler cactus ice cream. That sound you hear comes from the heads of a whole herd of obsessive foodies, all popping like ripe zits.

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