Opuntia is a genus in the cactus family, Cactaceae.
The most common culinary species is the Indian fig opuntia (O. ficus-indica). Most culinary uses of the term “prickly pear” refer to this species. Prickly pears are also known as tuna (fruit), sabra (the Hebrew name), nopal (paddle, plural nopales) from the Nahuatl word nōpalli for the pads, or nostle, from the Nahuatl word nōchtli for the fruit; or paddle cactus.
The genus is named for the Ancient Greek city of Opus, where, according to Theophrastus, an edible plant grew which could be propagated by rooting its leaves.
Prickly pears typically grow with flat, rounded cladodes (also called platyclades) armed with two kinds of spines; large, smooth, fixed spines and small, hairlike prickles called glochids, that easily penetrate skin and detach from the plant. Many types of prickly pears grow into dense, tangled structures.
Like all true cactus species, prickly pears are native only to the Americas, but they have been introduced to other parts of the globe. Prickly pear species are found in abundance in Mexico, especially in the central and western regions, and in the Caribbean islands (West Indies). In the United States, prickly pears are native to many areas of the arid Western United States, including the lower elevations of the Rocky Mountains, where species such as Opuntia phaeacantha and Opuntia polyacantha become dominant, and to the desert Southwest, where several types are endemic.
Opuntia has modest content of essential nutrients as assessed by the amount of Daily Value (DV) provided in a 100 g portion, with only dietary fiber (14% DV), vitamin C (23% DV) and the dietary mineral, magnesium (21% DV) having significant content (USDA table of measured nutrients, right).
Regional food uses
The fruit of prickly pears, commonly called cactus fruit, cactus fig, Indian fig or tuna in Spanish, is edible, although it must be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin before consumption. If the outer layer 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 suitable medium (e.g. grit) to “sand” off the glochids. Alternatively, rotating the fruit in the flame of a campfire or torch has been used to remove the glochids.
Cactus figs are often used to make candy, jelly, or drinks.
The young stem segments, usually called nopales, 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. Nopales are also an important ingredient in New Mexican cuisine.
Photo credits: Ken Bosma