Long-held lore says that that if dying of thirst in the desert, one need only cut open the nearest cactus to find a refreshing supply of water. True? The answer is yes and no.
Fact and Fiction
While cacti do not contain clear, drinkable water, they do store fluid as a gluey juice in their pulp. But this liquid is not generally fit for drinking.
The most widely-recognized cactus, the large saguaro with its arm-like branches, can store as much as 200 gallons of water; however, this water can be toxic to humans. It is the prickly pear cactus and the barrel cactus which store drinkable liquid in their moist, spongy pulp.
Scooping out and squeezing this pulp is one way of obtaining the fluid. The easiest way to get nutrition and water from cactus is to simply peel the fruits of the prickly pear and barrel cactus, or the young leaf-like pads of the prickly pear cactus and eat them raw.
Native Americans have long used liquid from cacti as a water source, but only in emergencies. It has a bitter taste and contains chemicals such as oxalic acid, which can cause diarrhea.
While the pulp liquid is not fit for making drinks, prickly pear juice, made by pressing peeled prickly pear fruit through a colander then adding water, is a sweet, popular beverage.
- cactus image by Philippe LERIDON from Fotolia.com