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Desert Lemons; the cactus, the candy and the compass.

Arizona Barrel Cactus with a lemon citurs fruit hidden among the cactus fruits
Arizona Barrel Cactus with a lemon

I'm back "home" in the desert of southern Arizona for an extended visit and happen to be here during the window of barrel cactus fruit season, which is late winter January through March. There are several kinds of barrel cactus, but this one is Ferocactus wislizeni, the Arizona barrel cactus.

I know most of you will immediately think of little pineapples upon seeing the visual of the bright yellow fruits with their top knots - I see the same. Tropical looking on the outside, these fruits are beautiful, bursting with life holding hundreds of shiny black seeds in a sticky, slick hollow center.

Barrel cactus fruits resemble baby pineapple fruits. Shown here with seeds scattered around it.
Barrel Cactus resemble baby pineapples

Most blogs and articles chatting about the barrel cactus come from those fascinated by the introduction to the desert, foragers seeking new ideas and recipes, or those who appreciate the desert and are taking a closer look.

The Arizona Barrel Cactus, also known as the Candy Barrel Cactus, was once on the brink of endangerment due to decades of candy making. It started in 1891 when pre-teen Dominick Donofrio, traveled from Italy to Arizona to help in his brother’s confectionary shop. He saw the barrel cactus on his journey and was already imagining candy made from them. When he bought the candy company from his brother in 1905, he began the elaborate candy-making process and storytelling of cactus candy (from the actual cactus, not the fruit).

Years of marketing, a false Toltec legend creating a ritual around the cactus candy and claiming a long family line going back to a Toltec king (not his factual Italian ancestry), Donofrio created a successful mail-order business. His success even ignited the creativity of a competitive candy company to start making barrel cactus candy out of El Paso, Texas by 1921. To read the entire fascinating story, click here.

Top view of a full crown of barrel cactus fruit.
Arizona Barrel Cactus fruit face southward.

My family’s yard in the Sonoran desert is a botanical garden with a variety of cacti, such as prickly pear, saguaros, chollas, jumping cholla, succulents and non-cactus such as aloe vera. While I am way ahead of the spectacular display of fruits and blooms of late spring and summer will bring to the desert, the barrel cactus is full of fruit.

Barrel cacti are also known as compass cacti as they will always lean southward. It’s easy to know your directions if you see all the fruit facing you, then you are facing north.

Open barrel cactus fruit with seeds scraped out.
Open barrel cactus fruit with seeds scraped out.

While searching for suggestions for the use of the fruit, I came across a blog that used the fruit as candy and one blog that suggested the barrel cactus could be used in recipes that might require lemon (in a stew or soup for instance).

Hmmm, desert lemons, you say?

I’m curious.

I’ve pulled off saguaro fruits and made jam in the summer. Prickly Pear cactus is probably the most common fruit used in jams (and they are easy to harvest since the fruit is often knee to eye level on the cactus). But some cactus fruits with a sneaky defense of tiny hairlike spike clusters known as glochids, make harvesting tricky. High winds and bare skin are best avoided when working with harvesting fruits and cactus pads containing glochids. They can be very hard to remove and create quite the irritant. No fruits or pads should be consumed while still containing glochids! Barrel Cactus contains no glochids, and have a smooth texture with little waves giving that pineapple appearance.

Coming across several articles suggesting a slight lemony flavor to the fruits had me harvesting a few of my own. Most blogs and articles suggest one of two ways for consumption: Raw, and secondly, dehydrated and then reconstituted. Since I don’t have a dehydrator, I’m letting the pieces naturally dry on the countertop in order to easily knock out the seeds. At the time of this writing, I haven’t tried it raw.

Barrel cactus fruit has a gelatinous viscosity (it is reminiscent of aloe vera) in the fibers that can lend to a slight thickening of soups and stews (I’ve read it can act like a weak cornstarch addition). While I won’t be cooking stews this week, I did try the fruit after a 24-hour countertop dehydration. It had a crisp lemony flavor with a soft earthy undernote. I liked it better when it had a bit of the raw fruit still soft rather than totally dry, which I found to be chewy. However, it is all very interesting!

dehydrated piece of cactus fruit after 24 hours
Dehydrated piece of cactus fruit after 24 hours

I haven’t had time to allow it to dry completely to reconstitute it but supposedly it retains a chewiness.

Now, I would not say these are technically desert lemons, as given certain areas in the desert, citrus can grow very well here. For example, here are some lemons from a local friend who brought well over a baker’s dozen of amazing fresh lemons this morning. They are huge, juicy and fragrant. However, the unexpected tangy flavor of the cactus barrel fruits is definitely lemony.

Picture of abundant Lemons grown in southern Arizona
Lemons grown in southern Arizona

I have read the seeds can be toasted and used like poppy seeds in recipes as well as ground down and added to dry ingredients in baked goods.

Perhaps on another visit, I’ll plan to experiment more with these winter gems.

Arizona Barrel Cactus seeds
Arizona Barrel Cactus seeds

Do you have experience with cactus fruits? Drop a line and let me know!

Until next time, stay curious, be aware, do research, ask questions, and maintain gratitude for the world around you. We are surrounded by wonders!

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