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Prickly Pear Cactus

Scientific Names

  • Opuntia littoralis
  • Opuntia cardona
  • Opuntia ficus
  • Opuntia ficus-indica
  • Opuntia fuliginosa
  • Opuntia hyptiacantha
  • Opuntia lasciacantha
  • Opuntia macrocentra
  • Opuntia megacantha
  • Opuntia puberula
  • Opuntia streptacantha
  • Opuntia velutina
  • Opuntia violacea
  • Cactaceae family

Common Names

  • Barbary-fig Cactus
  • Barbary Pear
  • Cactus Flowers
  • Cactus Fruit
  • Cactus Pear Fruit
  • Figue d’Inde
  • Figuier de Barbarie
  • Fruit du Cactus
  • Fruit de l’Oponce
  • Gracemere-Pear
  • Indian-fig
  • Indien-Figue
  • Nopal
  • Nopal Cactus
  • Nopales
  • Nopol
  • OPI
  • Oponce
  • Opuntia
  • Opuntia Fruit
  • Paddle Cactus
  • Prickly Pear
  • Tuna Cardona
  • Tuna Fig
  • Westwood-Pear

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Parts Usually Used

The edible parts are the leaves, flowers, stems and fruit. Prickly pear cactus is eaten whole (boiled or grilled) or made into juice and jams.

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Description of Plant(s) and Culture

Prickly pear cacti grow in large, jumbled clumps of fleshy leaves called ‘pads’, ‘platyclades’ or ‘nopales’. These nopales are flat, oblong shaped structures that are generally deep green in color. They are covered with needle-like spines or prickly, hair-like spines depending on the variety. The flowers are typically large, axillary, solitary, bisexual, and epiperigynous, with a perianth consisting of distinct, spirally arranged tepals and a hypanthium.

Prickly pear fruit emerge from cactus nopales in the hottest, driest months of the year. They are small and oval in shape, with the largest fruits reaching 5” in length. Color ranges from yellowish-green to a deep-red or purple. Most fruits ripen to a deep-red color in late summer. These reddish fruits are generally regarded as the best for eating.

Like the nopales, prickly pear fruits are covered with needle-like spines. American Indians removed these spines by rubbing the fruit in the sand. This was made easier in the early mornings when the cacti were covered with dew. Today, spines are commonly removed by scrubbing each fruit with a vegetable brush under running water. The fruit is edible, although it must be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin before consumption.
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Where Found

Like most true cactus species, prickly pears are native only to the Americas, but humans now cultivate them all over the world. Prickly pear species are abundant in Mexico, especially in the central and western regions, and in the Caribbean islands. In the United States, prickly pears are native to many areas of the arid, semiarid, and drought-prone Western and South Central United States, including the lower elevations of the Rocky Mountains and southern Great Plains. Opuntia species are the most cold-tolerant of the lowland cacti, extending into western and southern Canada.
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Medicinal Properties

Prickly Pear Cactus is high in fiber, antioxidants and carotenoids. It also possesses strong anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anti-hyperglycemic and anti-diabetic effects.

Some preliminary evidence shows that prickly pear cactus can decrease blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Some research also suggests that prickly pear cactus extract may lessen the unpleasant effects of a hangover, possibly due to its anti-inflammatory effects. Some research suggests that prickly pear may also help control cholesterol levels.

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Biochemical Information

Opuntia contains a range of phytochemicals, such as polyphenols, dietary minerals and betalains. Other compounds include gallic acid, vanillic acid and catechins. The fruits are especially high in betalains.

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Legends, Myths and Stories

Prickly Pear is part of the diet in Mexican and Mexican-American cultures. Only the young plant is eaten; older plants are too tough. In foods, the prickly pear juice is used in jellies and candies.

The most common culinary species is the Indian fig opuntia (O. ficus-indica).

Charles Darwin was the first to note that these cacti have thigmotactic anthers; when the anthers are touched, they curl over, depositing their pollen. This movement can be seen by gently poking the anthers of an open Opuntia flower.

If the outer layer of the fruit is not properly removed, glochids can be ingested, causing discomfort of the throat, lips, and tongue, as the small spines are easily lodged in the skin. Native Americans like the Tequesta would roll the fruit around in a gritty medium to “sand” off the glochids. Alternatively, rotating the fruit in the flame of a campfire or torch has been used to remove the glochids. Today, seedless types are also available.

The coat of arms of Mexico depicts a Mexican golden eagle, perched upon an Opuntia cactus, holding a rattlesnake.

The prickly pear cactus has been used for centuries as a natural fence that keeps in livestock and marks the boundaries of family lands. They are resilient and often grow back following removal.

Spines from prickly pear pads were commonly used as needles by many Native American tribes.

The deep reds and purples of the tunas were used by Indians to dye textiles.

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Uses

Prickly pear cactus is used for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). It is also used to fight viral infections and the fruit of the plant is consumed as treatment for diarrhea, asthma and gonorrhea. Mexicans also consume prickly pear to address high blood pressure, enlarged prostate, colitis, gastric acidity, ulcers, fatigue, shortness of breath, glaucoma, and liver disorders.

Prickly pear fruit and nopales were used by American Indians to treat a variety of physical ailments. Nopales in particular were split and applied to open wounds on both humans and animals. Roasted nopales were held on the side of the neck or below the chin to treat rheumatism and mumps. Tribes in New Mexico and the Baja region of California applied warm nopales to the body to reduce swelling. Many tribes wrapped split, soaked pads over open wounds to speed recovery, and the Pima tribe used warm pads to increase milk flow in nursing women.

In Mexico, prickly pears are often used to make appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, vegetable dishes, breads, desserts, beverages, candy, jelly, and drinks.The young stem segments are also edible in most species of Opuntia. They are commonly used in Mexican cuisine in dishes such as huevos con nopales (eggs with nopal), or tacos de nopales.

Prickly pear fruit was usually eaten fresh and raw by American Indians. Some tribes made candy and chewing gum from the fruit, or mashed the ‘tunas’ into a sort of applesauce. Mashed fruit was also boiled down into prickly pear syrup, juice or jelly. Excess fruit was dried and stored for winter.

In Mexican folk medicine, its pulp and juice are considered treatments for wounds and inflammation of the digestive and urinary tracts, although there has been little clinical study of the benefit of using opuntia for these purposes.

Prickly pear is often used for animal fodder for animals in arid and dryland regions.

Bioethanol can be produced from some Opuntia species and is used for fuel.

Nopal juice can be used to produce bioplastic.

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Formulas or Dosages

For diabetes: 100-500 grams of broiled stems of prickly pear cactus daily. Doses are often divided into three equal amounts and consumed throughout the day.

For hangover due to use of alcohol: 1600 IU of a specific prickly pear cactus extract taken 5 hours before drinking alcohol.

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Nutrient Content

Raw opuntia leaves are 88% water, 10% carbohydrates, and less than 1% both of protein and fat. In a 100-g reference amount, raw leaves provide 41 calories, 17% of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin C, and 24% DV for magnesium. The pads contain some potassium, plus a little calcium, iron, and beta carotene, as well as some other potentially beneficial compounds.

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How Sold

Prickly pear is sold as food, in capsules, as a gel or powder, or as a pulp-rich juice.
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Warning

If you aren’t used to eating prickly pear cactus, consider easing into it. Side effects for some people include mild diarrhea, nausea, increased stool volume, increased stool frequency and abdominal fullness.

There is not enough reliable information about the safety of taking prickly pear cactus if you are pregnant or breast-feedingso it’s best to avoid use.

Prickly pear cactus might lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. Watch for signs of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and monitor your blood sugar carefully if you have diabetes and use prickly pear cactus.

Stop using prickly pear cactus at least 2 weeks before a scheduled surgery.

There are some potentially harmful drug interactions to be aware of. People using these medications should avoid use of prickly pear:

  • Chlorpropamide (Diabinese)
  • Glyburide (Diabeta, Micronase)
  • Glimepiride (Amaryl)
  • Insulin
  • Pioglitazone (Actos)
  • Rosiglitazone (Avandia)
  • Glipizide (Glucotrol)
  • Tolbutamide (Orinase)
  • Metformin (Glucophage)

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Resource Links

RxList.com: Prickly Pear Cactus

Mayo Clinic: I’ve seen prickly pear cactus promoted as a superfood. What’s behind the hype?

Wikipedia: Opuntia

American Indian Health and Diet Project: Prickly Pear Cactus

Dr.Andrew Weil: Prickly Pear: A Cactus Cure?

JAMA Network: Effect of Opuntia ficus indica on Symptoms of the Alcohol Hangover

PubMed: Effect of Prickly Pear (Opuntia Robusta) on Glucose- And Lipid-Metabolism in Non-Diabetics With Hyperlipidemia–A Pilot Study

Pubmed: Phenolic Composition, Antioxidant Capacity and in Vitro Cancer Cell Cytotoxicity of Nine Prickly Pear (Opuntia Spp.) Juices

Pubmed: Effects of the Consumption of Prickly Pear Cacti ( Opuntia spp.) and Its Products on Blood Glucose Levels and Insulin: A Systematic Review

US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: Cactus: a medicinal food

Berkeley Wellness: Prickly Pear Cactus

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Bibliography

Buy It! The Oxford Companion to Food, Davidson, Alan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Buy It! Native American Cooking – Foods of the Soutwest Indians Nations, Frank, Lois Ellen, New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1991.

Buy It! American Indian Food and Lore, Niethammer, Carolyn, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1974.

Buy It! A Treasury of American Indian Herbs – Their Lore and Their Use for Food, Drugs, and Medicine, Scully, Virginia, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1970.

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