The Prickly Pear Cactus is a commonly known plant of the Cactaceae (cactus) family. The genus name of this spiky plant, Opuntia, was given in respect for the ancient city of Opus or Locris, Greece. The common name prickly pear refers to the pear-like fruits, often sold in fruit stalls and vegetable markets across the country. To add further confusion, the tasty fruits are commonly called “tunas” or “tuna pears” by those in the Southwest regions where these plants originate.
The large, bristly Opuntia genus includes perhaps three hundred species of different cacti, found from Massachusetts and British Columbia to the Straits of Magellan. Most of them have awkward “arms” that joint off in different directions, formidable spines and showy flowers and fruits. Their ability to withstand unfavorable growing conditions make them useful ornamentals, especially in rock gardens, sandy banks, and the medicine wheel garden.
Opuntia ficus-indica, the Indian fig or tuna, is widely grown for its abundant edible pads and fruits. Centuries ago, the Spanish adopted the Taino Indian word tuna for this plant’s small red fruits, long a favored food in tropical America. The teddy bear cactus, 0. bigelovii, grows three to eight feet tall in the West and produces pale yellow flowers in spring. The flapjack cactus, 0. chlorotica, grows up to six feet tall with long spines and yellow flowers. The beaver-tail or rose tuna, 0. basilaris, has yellow- to rose-colored blossoms. There are so many fascinating species of cholla, hedgehog, and prickly pear to consider for the xeriscape garden.
The Aztec City of Tenochtitlan, “place of the prickly pear cactus,” was founded in A.D. 1345, later becoming Mexico City. Its symbol of the prickly pear is on the heart of the Mexican coat of arms, and most Mexican coins. This cactus is ubiquitous in the desert Southwest and across the Mexican countryside.
The Aztec dye cochineal is made from the female insects found on the prickly pear cactus, and results in beautiful shades of purple, red, and magenta.
Traditional uses of Prickly Pear:
Throughout the Indian pueblos, both the pads and the sweet, delicious fruits of the prickly pear and many other native cacti were and continue to be eaten. The Zuni made a fine red dye from the prickly pear fruits and the bee plant, dried and ground together. The pads and fruits are best gathered with sharp shovels and gloved hands; then the spines may be roasted or burned off. The peeled pads are used in the mouth to ease inflamed gums and mouth sores, and can be applied as poultices to tumors and skin injuries. The dried flowers are also used in poultices, and are applied to skin as anti-inflammatory treatments. These dried-flower poultices can improve hair and scalp conditions as well. The mucilaginous juice is an anti-inflammatory diuretic, and the fruits are often mixed with cornmeal in various dishes. Native people also use the juice, pads, and fruits of the prickly pear to treat diabetes.
Modern uses of the Prickly Pear:
Today there is a cultivated spineless prickly pear cactus grown and sold for the gourmet markets, especially in the Southwest, where these pads and fruits are frequent ingredients in regional foods. Pickled and grilled opuntia pads provide the nopales enjoyed in Mexican cuisine. Often available in supermarkets, the rosy red tuna pears are delicious raw or cooked into various sweet dishes and jellies and are now being looked into for nutritional supplement development. The mucilaginous exudations from the cactus pads are used directly on the skin to ease rashes and many skin problems.
Be careful to avoid cactus spines. Handle these cacti with great care, wearing thick garden gloves; you can make a corset of rolled newspaper to wrap around the plants when handling them.
Growth needs and propagation:
Prickly pears will grow well in sandy, loamy soil in full sun. They may be easily propagated from the joints (from which they readily grow roots in good soil), and grow just as readily from seeds. Prickly pear colonies are relatively slow-growing and don’t usually take over a large area very quickly. While considered pest plants by those who had no say in these plants growing on their land, savvy gardeners tend to appreciate a prickly pear cactus as an addition to their herb gardens!