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Notes on Prickly Pear

prickly pear PRICKLY PEAR - Opuntia sp. Subgenus Opuntia or Platyopuntia. Feigenkaktus, Figurier d'Inde, Indian Fig, Nopal, Opuntia, Prairie Rose, Raquette, Tuna. Hebrew: Sabra. Russian: Opuntsiya. Takic: Navit. The fruit is called Navityuluku "Little head of the cactus". The Prickly Pear is the most common cactus in the world, and grows in more climates than any other. The fruit of various species is called Tuna. The bitter juice of the joints, or pads, of some species, particularly those of the mountains, is thirst-quenching. Many of the species have edible fruit. This especially includes the subgenus Nopalea. Eat the fruit raw, or peel, boil, and grind the fruit, including the seeds. Prickly Pear seeds can be used in soups or ground into flour. The fruit can be cooked or steamed in a pit with hot stones. It can then be eaten, or dried for storage. The fruit is used to make preserves, jam, jelly, or syrup. It can be put into hot coals, and the glochids burned off; the fruit is ready when the skin splits open. When they are totally ripe, the skin can be peeled easily with the fingernails. Cut off the ends first. We like to cut them in half and scoop out the fruit with a spoon. We hold the fruit with a pair of metal tongs, or with heavy gloves. The fruit juice can be used as a sweetener. Both the juice and the pulp can be frozen to make something that resembles sherbet. It tends to freeze very hard. One can separate the pulp from the seeds by running it through a fine strainer. To obtain just the juice, we grind the entire fruit in the Cuisinart and put it through a milk filter. Those can be obtained at feed stores. The juice could be mixed with gelatin and cooled. Remove the seeds and spread the pulp on grass on the ground, under the sun for two days. Mash the dry pulp, squeeze the juice and strain. The liquid is boiled and restrained to produce syrup. Grind the entire dried fruit and mix with an equal part of corn meal to make mush for winter eating. The seeds are ground and eaten in soups or dried and ground into flour. We feed the seeds and sometimes the fruit pulp to our chickens. Some kinds of fruit produce chills and nausea in some people, and also eating too much fruit.


The word "Nopalea" is related to the Spanish word "nopales", which refers to the young pads of the Prickly Pear species. They are gathered in baskets, and the spines and glochids can be brushed off with a handful of grass, twigs, or Chaparral (Larrea tridentata). The very young pads, smaller than a silver dollar, of nearly all species, can be dethorned, cleaned, and sliced, and eaten raw. Or, put the young pads in water with a garlic clove and boil for twenty minutes. Drain. Put the pads on a hard surface and scrape off the spines and young caducous leaves. Trim the edge and point of attachment. Rinse and check for remaining glochids. Clean between each pad. Cover the pads with water and store in a cool place. For older pads, hold the pad with tongs and cut the margin away with a knife. Scrape the glochids off with a knife, or cut them out, or rub the pads in sand. Peel the pad itself if the skin is tough. The stickers can also be singed off. They are eaten freely, peeled and blanched, or canned, or cubed or sliced and boiled. Simmer them in water until barely tender when pierced, about five minutes. Drain, rinse well, and drain again. Eat them alone or mixed with other foods. They can be pickled with vinegar or green chilis, or roasted whole on coals. Boil the pads and separate out the fiber by grinding them on a metate, and squeeze. Mix this with chili pepper. Boil them, strip off the skin and spines, then fry them in lard with onions, chilis, and season them with salt and pepper. The pads, when cooked, are slimy, acid green. They can be chewed like gum, or dried and made into cakes for storage. They can be used in salads and casseroles. Nopales can also be fried. They can be sliced and boiled, and the juice rinsed from them several times until they are no longer gummy, and then eaten. There are several recipes involving both nopales and nopalitos in the Sunset SOUTHWEST COOKBOOK. Niethammer gives several recipes.


The juice obtained from cooking most prickly pear pads is nutritious. If you are choosing older pads, select only the larger pads which grow upright and have white thorns. From older pads, the water must be thick like okra water or egg whites, or it can make you sick. See also O. tuna. The symptoms include abdominal discomfort, chills, intense lower back pains extending down the back of the legs and up to the neck, weakness, high fever, and chills, and it may be impossible to get warm unless it is a hot day. If this happens, drink a cup of hot chaparral tea per hour. For twenty minutes, or until it is uncomfortable, hold the instep of the foot with one hand and and the groin at the top of the thigh with the other hand. Then put one hand on the top of the thigh and the other on the upper spinal side edge of the shoulder blade and hold another 20 minutes. If necessary, repeat on the other side of the body. The pads can be cooked into a paste and allowed to ferment slightly. This plant is an excellent survival food because it contains both food and liquid.

To prepare the buds of some species for eating, cut off the ends, and make a cut down the side so that the skin can be peeled off. Be careful not to get stickers in your fingers as you do this.

The mucilaginous inside of a Prickly Pear pad can be used as a poultice for rheumatism, wounds, and burns. It will reduce inflammation. Burn or cut off the spines, and slice the pad before applying. Or, soak the split pads in water, remove the spines, roast the pads, split them in half, and bind them to wounds, bruises, and rheumatic inflammations, or bind to the neck for mumps or toothaches. The inner surface of the split pads or the poultice can be used to take the venom out of insect and scorpion stings. Rub the stickers off in sand or dirt, cut lengthwise in half to expose the inside surface. Be sure to make the poultice significantly larger than the affected area to allow for spread of the venom as it takes effect. I treated multiple yellow jacket stings this way with considerable success. It stops the pain immediately. I know of one person who healed a rattlesnake bite with this poultice. The pads, cooked and eaten, will lower blood sugar. A drink made of water and peeled mashed joints was used for childbirth. It may be good for diabetes or cancer. The pad is peeled and bound over a cut to stop bleeding. Apply the juice on sunburns the same day as the burn: you will tan and not peel. They say a compress of split and slightly roasted pads will curb inflammation from wounds such as those made from bullets.


The pulp of the pads is absorptive and used to clarify water for drinking. To absorb the mud and dirt, slice some pads into thin strips, and mix one part of these to four parts water, and let it sit for a couple of hours. This will not disinfect the water. Mix the plant juice with white lime and water to make a whitewash that sticks well. Sometimes a Prickly Pear will give off its internal juices, which will harden into a flaky, waxlike substance, which is often mistaken for the remnants of the Cochineal insect. The Purpleworm or Cochineal, which lives on Prickly Pear, is used to make a red dye. The Dine used Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit to make a maroon wool dye.

One species, unspecified, is called Mutal in Takic. The joint buds are gathered and brushed to remove the thorns. They are dried and stored. When they are needed, they are boiled in water and lard. The seeds are removed from the ripe, dried fruit, by threshing, and winnowed, and stored. They are pounded and made into Atole. They are called Wial. The seeds of several species are used. Other species are called Tinupem, Nautem, and Ayuvivi. There appears to be some confusion as to the differentiation of several species, but the remarks appear to be largely interchangeable, so it is generally not a problem.

O. basilaris (O. brachyclada, humistrata, intricata): Beaver Tail, Beaver Tail Cactus, Beavertail Cactus. Paiute: Wussiv. Serrano: Perrutum. Takic: Penal, Manal. This cactus is spineless but has a lot of glochids. All parts of the plant: fruits, flowers, and pads, are edible. The fruits are delicious when ripe. Young pads and buds are gathered in May or June and rubbed with grass to remove the glochids, and sun dried and stored. They can be boiled and salted to taste. Or steam them in stone-lined pits for twelve hours. It is used to treat warts.

O. tomentosa. The fruit is edible. There is an arborescent form that has edible white fruit.


O. tuna (O. ficus-indica, Cactus chinensis, compressus, dillenii, ferox, f.-i., ficusindica, fragilis, horridus, humifusus, humilis, monacanthos, opuntia, opuntia inermis, opuntia nana, opuntia polyanthos, polyanthos, strictus, tuna, urumbeba, urumbella, O. allairei, airampo, alta, anahuacensis, angustata, arizonica, arkansana, atrispina, atrocapensis, balearica, ballii, bartramii, blakeana, cacanapa, bentonii, caespitosa, calcicola, camanchica, canada, castillae, cespitosa, charlestonensis, chlorotica, coccinea, columbiana, comonduensis, compressa, confusa, convexa, covillei, crassa, crassa major, curvospina, cycloidea, cycloides, cyclodes, cyanella, cymochila, delicata, deltica, demissa, dillei, dillenii, discata, dulcis, ellisiana, engelmannii, erinacea, expansa, ferruginispina, ficus-barbarica, filipendula, flavescens, flexibilis, folio minori, fragilis, fuscoatra, fusiformis, gilva, gilvescens, gilvoalba, glaberrima, glauca, gomei, gosseliniana, grandiflora, greenei, gregoriana, griffithiana, griffithsiana, haematocarpa, humifusa, humifusa microsperma, humifusa parva, humilis, hystricina, inaequalis, incarnadilla, inermis, intermedia, keyensis, laevis, laxiflora, lemaireana, leptocarpa, ligustica, lindheimeri, linguiformis, littoralis, longiareolata, longiclada, loomisii, mackensenii, macranthra, macrocentra, macrorhiza, magnariensis, media, megacarpa, magnifica, maidenii, maritima, mediterranea, megacantha, mesacantha, mesacantha microsperma, mesacantha parva, mirisii, missouriensis, mojavensis, monacantha, monacantha variegata, multiflora, nana, nemoralis, nicholii, nitens, occidentalis, oplocarpa, opuntia, orecola, oricola, parva, parvula, phaeacantha, phaecantha discata, plumbea, polyantha, polyanthos, polyacantha, polyacantha basilaris, procumbens, prostrata, pyrocarpa, rafinesquei, rafinesquei arkansana, rafinesquei microsperma, rafinesquei minor, recedens, reflexa, rhodantha, robusta, roseana, roxburghiana, rutila, sabinii, sanguinocula, santa-rita, schweriniana, seguina, setispina, shreveana, sinclairii, spinosibacca, splendens, stenochila, stricta, subarmata, tapona, tardospina, tenuispina, texana, tidbullii, tortispina, toumeyi, trichophora, tricolor, tuna humilior, tuna humilis, tuna orbiculata, tunoidea, tunoides, umbrella, urumbeba, urumbella, ursina, utahensis, valida, violacea, vulgaris, vulgaris balearica, vulgaris media, vulgaris nana, vulgaris rafinesquei, wentiana, winteriana, woodsii, xanthoglochia, xerocarpa, youngii, zebrina, zuniensis, Tuna fragilis, major, polyacantha): Aztec Prickly Pear, Beaver Tail, Beavertail Pricklypear, Cactus Prickly Pear, Clock Face Prickly Pear, Duraznilla, Dusky Spined Prickly Pear, Engelmann Prickly Pear, Engelmann's Prickly Pear, Grizzly Bear (var. ursina), Grizzly Bear Cactus, Hunger Cactus, Indian Fig, Indian Fig Prickly Pear, Many Spiked Prickly Pear, Many Spined Cactus, New Mexican Prickly Pear, Nopal, Nopal de Castillo, Old Man, Old Man Prickly Pear, Pancake Pear, Pancake Prickly Pear, Plains Cactus, Plains Prickly Pear, Plains Pricklypear, Pricklypear, Purple Prickly Pear, Santa Rita Cactus, Silver Dollar Cactus, Spineless Cactus, Spineless Prickly Pear, Sprawling Prickly Pear, Starvation Cactus, Tuna, Tuna Cactus, Tuna de Castillo, Tuna Tapona. Akimel: Iipai. Dine: Titchin pixwoc "hunger cactus", Xwocntxyeeli "flat jointed cactus", Hosh niteeli "Broad cactus". Kawaiisu: Navubi, Navumbi. Paiute: Yuahp. Panamint (Shoshone): Navo. Seri: Heel hayeen ipaii "prickly pear used for face painting", Heel cooxp "white prickly pear", Heel cocsar yaa "Mexican's prickly pear", Heel, Ziix istj captalca "wide leaved thing", Saapom. Serrano: Nahvam, Nahvaht, Oweem. Takic: Qexeyily, Manal, Navet, Navit. Navityuluku: the fruit. O. dillenii is called Mpungate. O. tunicata, which may be this species, is called Abrojo, a name also applied to Caltrops and Thistles. Cultivated ornamental.


The reason this cactus has so many names is because it occurs all over the world. The plant is grown for its fruit and as a hedge. The young pads and fruit are edible. Sometimes the fruit of one variety of O. phaeacantha does not die, but continues to grow and gets very large. According to one authority, this plant is named Hunger Cactus because the fruit is not edible; it shrivels and dries out, but Lyman Benson says it is, the Tohono and Comcaac eat it, and the Cahuilla eat it when it is young, in early summer when it is full of sweetness. Do not eat more than three unripe fruits; it will result in poisoning. O. ficus-indica is found worldwide, and free of large spines. It is cultivated in the Mediterranean for its edibility. It is refrigerant. The variety with light colored fruit is apparently milder in this regard. The fruit is a source of alcohol and has medicinal uses.

Engelmann Prickly Pear is considered a variety of O. phaecantha. It does not sprawl; the pads will be highly edible. It has excellent fruit.

O. ficus-indica has small spines on large pads. The spines are removed and the pads fried in breadcrumb batter. The flowers are yellow and large: three inches across.

The combination of yellow flowers and purple pads in some varieties is very pretty. The purple color arises as a result of stress in the environment. Other times of the year, they are green or blue-green.

The fruit is covered with glochids. Pick it with ice tongs. The spines and glochids are removed by rolling the fruit in sand or gravel or singeing in hot ashes. Or, brush the fruit with a stiff vegetable brush under water.


The fruit, which is edible raw or cooked, is called Tuna or Cactus Pear. The ripe fruit is edible fresh, dried, made into stew with dried peaches, or fermented to make a drink. It can be juiced, and made into jelly or syrup. It is high in calcium, potassium, and Vitamin C. We find that the juice helps quench thirst, because it helps restore the minerals lost during hot weather. Some people lived off 200 tunas a day.The taste is sweet, not tart. Queso de Tuna (Tuna Cheese) was made by evaporating the pulp to a paste and shaped into cheeses. Eating too many unground seeds causes constipation. To make juice, put six fruits in boiling water and blanch 10 seconds. Peel while still warm. Slice and remove the seeds. Add water to the seeds and break them up to remove pulp. Mash and strain the pulp through a mesh. Mix the seed water in. Simmer the entire for five minutes, put into jars, and refrigerate. We like to cut them open, scoop out the pulp and seeds, whirl them in the Cuisenart, strain them through a milk filter, and drink the juice fresh or freeze it. Two dozen fruits makes a quart of juice. It can be made into jelly or mixed with other juices and drunk. One drink is made by mixing a pint of prickly pear juice with a pint of cranberry juice and a quart of gingerale. The fruit juice, alone or with grape juice, can be used to make wine. The seeds are ground to make mush. Some people get a headache from eating the fruit. In San Luis Potosí, they prepare a very pleasing fermented drink from the juice which is called Colonche, and with the same fruit make a preparation known as Queso de Tuna. The fruit contains citric acid, tartaric acid, mucilage, red coloring material, pectic substances, starch, albumin, and salts. The seeds contain a bitter extractive fixed acid 7.25, resin of the color reddish brown, glucose, starch, albumin, and salts. Diuretic, used to cure diarrhea. The juice is used against bilious afflictions.


The pads are rich in Vitamin A. The buds and young pads are diced and eaten pit-baked. The Nopales, or young pads, are also edible. To make soup from the pads, select the large ones that stand upright, with white thorns. Boil them in water. If the water does not get thick and mucilaginous like okra water, do not drink it. If you drink some of the boil water and do get sick, follow the remedy described under Opuntia sp. above. Pick the buds in the early morning while they are wet with dew, to prevent the fine stickers from blowing into your eyes. They are especially delicious then.

A tea of the pads can be used for headaches, eye troubles, and insomnia. A tea of the flowers can be used as a diuretic. The roots boiled in milk are used for dysentery and for increasing hair growth. The split pads are emollient, and used as poultices on rheumatism, and baked for ulcers, gout, and wounds. This plant is good for warts, kidney problems, measles, and as a vermifuge for gastro-intestinal parasites, used sparingly. The boiled fruit is purgative; it is used for constipation. Plugs of the plant are put into wounds to heal them.

The petals of the flowers have a delicate flavor when eaten raw. They can be used in salads.

Flor de Tuna Blanca. The species of this was not certain according to the authority; but in light of the fact that there are so many synonyms, it is probably safe to assume that this is the correct species. Has pharmacological properties. Pectoral.

Raiz de Abrojo, the root, is made into a decoction to use as a diuretic, very effective for treating the kidneys. Take it with a water paste during the course of the day. The roots are anti-abortive.


The Cahuilla use the long spines set in asphaltum, called Wish in Takic, as awls. The juice from the cactus stems is used as a glue for buckskin. The fruit can be made into a variety of dyes. It will come out pink to cardinal colored. A mixture of the fruit and bark or roots of the Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) steeped in water makes a rose-colored dye, or the juice can be used alone. This cactus is shelter and food for animals. The pads often break off and stick in the noses and throats of livestock. The spineless variety called O. laevis has no spines on the pads and is relished by animals. Many varieties of O. tuna were used as a livestock feed supplement. These are browse plants in times of scarcity.

We have an Opuntia on our property that we always called Elephant Ear. It has elongated joints. It is most likely O. linguifolia, or it might be O. tuna. The fruit of this cactus is edible. This species is commonly cultivated.

A spineless Opuntia can be grown as fodder. In times of great scarcity of feed,sometimes ranchers burn off the spines of the prickly pears in the grazing area so that the cattle may eat them.

See also Cholla, Opuntia.


Cactus Recipes


Notes index