If your climate is suitable, edible cacti and succulents are extremely low-maintenance plants and delicious, too!
Some people ask what the difference is between cacti and succulents. A succulent plant is one that has thick, fleshy, water-storing leaves or stems, so technically, a cactus is a succulent plant. But most people use the term cacti to mean succulents with spines on them. All true cacti belong to the plant family Cactaceae.
Let us talk about the wide variety of edible cacti and other succulents available to you for edible landscaping:
All true cactus fruits are safe to eat, but some taste better than others. Some taste best cooked, and most have to be peeled or their spines removed before putting one in your mouth! And, of course, everyone likes different things. So it is advisable to try some of the cacti you are considering before buying to make sure you like them and are not allergic.
Which edible cactus you choose depends on what you want to use it for and what look you want in your edible landscaping. Many edible cacti belong to more than 200 Opuntia species, also known as the Nopales, Nopalitos, Cactus Pear, or Paddle Cactus.
The leaves and egg-shaped fruit (or "tunas") of all Opuntias are edible. You can identify an Opuntia by its flat oval leaves, or "paddles," covered with spines.
Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) is the most famous and well-loved of the edible cacti. Also called the Indian Fig, its leaves and fruit are very flavorful and staple in many dishes in Central America and the southwestern United States. This cactus has been introduced into places as varied as Australia, northern Africa, and the Galapagos Islands.
Opuntias are quite cold-tolerant and, in some places, have become invasive. Still, they have many uses in landscaping (make excellent barrier hedges) and can make a stunning centerpiece in rock gardens or other drought-tolerant landscapes.
Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), the elegant symbol of the southwestern United States desert, has edible fruit when fully mature (which can take decades). However, the Saguaro is difficult to obtain and illegal to move without a permit.
Organ Pipe Cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) resembles a Saguaro but is smaller with "arms" that usually grow at the base of the plant rather than farther up the main trunk. It has lavender flowers and red fruit known as Pitahaya Dulce, about the size of a golf ball.
The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona (United States) is full of these, and a visit is a wonderful way to see these lovely cacti in their native environment.
Barrel Cactus fruit can be picked and eaten raw and has no spines, making it easy to handle. The flowers and buds are also edible. One of the American Wild West legends was that Barrel Cacti could be cut open and the pulp squeezed for water that would keep you alive in the deep desert.
The vine-like Night-Blooming Cereus (Hylocereus undatus), otherwise known as the Dragon Fruit or Pitaya (and also called Pitahaya Dulce in some areas), is a cactus with long fleshy leaves and bright red or yellow fruit with a white or red center and black, crunchy seeds with high nutritional value. The plant has large white fragrant flowers that only bloom at night.
Several species are also called Night-Blooming Cereus, such as Peniocereus greggii.
There are other cactus fruits called Pitaya, such as the Peruvian Apple Cactus (Cereus repandus), which looks very different from Hylocereus but also has sweet, brightly colored edible fruit.
Another group of edible cacti is the Epiphyllum species, commonly known as Orchid Cactus, which look and act much like the Hylocereus species, but their fruit is not as large. These all have stunning flowers!
Edible Succulent Plants
A couple of the Caralluma species, Caralluma fimbriata, Caralluma adscendens, and Caralluma edulis, are eaten as vegetables in India and northern Africa.
Several species of Agave can be made edible, the most notable being Agave tequilana, which is used in tequila production!
All Sedum species, commonly called Stonecrops, are edible. They are used in salads and have a sour or peppery taste. Eat these sparingly; some can cause indigestion if eaten in large amounts.
Purslane is useful as ground cover in moist areas, easy to grow, and quite pretty, not to mention extremely tasty when cooked.
Purslane is considered a weed in the US, but it is excellent in stews and soups, tasty fried and reasonably good in salads.
- Succupedia: Browse succulents by Scientific Name, Common Name, Genus, Family, USDA Hardiness Zone, Origin, or cacti by Genus