Prickly pear cacti have flat pads as “leaves” with plenty of spines, flower beautifully in different colors, and bear awesome fruit. The fruits and pads help fight inflammation, are rich in soluble fibers, and are called a superfood by some. It’s common in Arizona, although the state plant is the saguaro (prickly pear is Texas’ state plant).
I first encountered the pads as veggies in a beef molcajete (beef stewed and served in a special three-legged Mexican bowl “volcanic” so it keeps the food warm until the meal’s end). Even prickly pear candies are sought out as souvenir items. The plant is celebrated at prickly pear festivals and the best one is at Tucson’s Tanque Verde Ranch.
What Is The Prickly Pear Festival?
After a 2-year hiatus, the Prickly Pear Festival will return to the 60,000-acre spectacular desert landscape that borders the Saguaro National Park and Coronado National Forest. The festival will return on the weekends of August 19th to the 21st and the 26th to the 28th. It’s an excellent venue for the two Friday through Sunday celebrations that are historic, luxurious, fully-equipped, well-managed and well-staffed.
Prickly pears bloom and ripen in August. It has been dry this year until late July when the monsoon rain finally came. Ripe fruit is fully red with no green remaining, and detaches from the rest of the plant easily. A little juice drips from the end when picked, and if there is more than a little resistance, then it’s not fully ripe yet. Since the plant sports plenty of spines, picking must be done with care and with the proper tools.
Events At The Prickly Pear Festival
The festival will start with harvesting the fruits. A guide will show guests how to pick the ripe ones without getting pricked. A demonstration of how the fruits are prepared for cooking will follow, showing how to remove the unusable parts. Then, they are made into syrups, jams, and juices for later use. In the afternoon, a bartender guides guests in concocting cocktails like the margarita from syrup.
The next morning, there will be more demonstrations on how to make prickly pear candies and pastries. In the afternoon, it will be time for cooking other prickly pear recipes. The following day, prickly pear pancakes will be made at a special homestead where guests can go on an early morning breakfast horse ride. Every guest receives a special 2022 t-shirt that says “Cactus Makes Perfect.”
Ranch Facilities Available For The Festival
Originally settled by the Pima Indians in the 1600s, Tanque Verde is the historic property that was claimed by Don Emilio Carillo of Sonora, Mexico in 1856. His home is now the museum/dining room. Ownership passed in the 1920s to cattleman Jim Converse, who started the tradition of guests paying a fee to experience ranch life. In 1957, Brownie Cote, an experienced Minnesota ranch owner, acquired it and expanded the tradition.
Today, the ranch sits on 640 acres and is widely reputed to be one of the best dude ranches in America. It is included in Mark Bedor’s book, The Great Ranches of Today’s Wild West. It provides the perfect lush desert setting for a unique southwestern experience. All-inclusive weekend packages are available, but other arrangements are possible. The newest venue, “The Barn”, offers spectacular ranch-style weddings and events for groups as big as 400 (to date, annual bookings have exceeded 70 in 2022).
You can participate in the Prickly Pear Festival a la carte, but there are many benefits of staying at the ranch. You’ll love the spacious ranch-style rooms and casitas. Usual upscale resort activities (basketball, pickleball, tennis, yoga, indoor and outdoor swimming, arts and crafts, and outdoor movies) are available. However, what makes the experience different is the range of outdoor activities that have become more popular as the pandemic encouraged back-to-nature programs.
My husband and I were happy that guests at the ranch this June participated in activities. From a herd of 105 horses, they found “Feather”, who was narrow enough for me. At 73, I finally learned how to ride comfortably and how to make him go forward, stop, and go left or right! I caught a fish at the well-stocked lake — guided by a ranch hand, of course. Unfortunately, we ran out of time for mountain biking, hiking, and archery.
Since it was hot at midday, we went to the ranger programs at the air conditioned nature center. That’s where I held a snake after I realized they weren’t so scary. They are not the scary slimy serpents they are often portrayed to be, but a valuable assistant to preserving ecological balance by helping control the population of mice, for instance. The same thing is true with the bats in the other session I attended. I didn’t have time for the luxurious spa options, but I shopped at the general store and found some unique cowgirl accessories at the local vendor exhibits held on one of the nights.
Best of all, we lingered at the Dog House Saloon and kept ordering the amazing prickly pear margarita before we feasted on their unique fillet mignon. Cactus does make perfect!
For more information on traveling to Arizona, check out these articles: