Prickly pears (aka opuntias) have the widest distribution of any genus in the cactus family, extending from Canada all the way to Argentina.
The genus is named for the Ancient Greek city of Opus, where, according to Theophrastus, an edible plant grew and could be propagated by rooting its leaves. Like most true cactus species, prickly pears are native only to the Americas.
Though they range from just inches high to treelike in stature, they share a unique trait that makes them instantly recognizable for their flattened oval or round stem joints.
DNA analysis has established that this domestic, and invasive, cactus was bred from wild species native to Mexico. It soon spread through the Aztec empire and beyond–cochineal dye, made from a scale insect that lives on cultivated Opuntia was used in Aztec tribute rolls.
The “pads,” as these joints are called, are sometimes mistaken for leaves, but the plant’s true leaves look like tiny fingers. They appear only briefly on the pads, and then opuntias, like other cacti, use their stems for photosynthesis.
In fact, islands with tall, trunked varieties have giant tortoises, and islands lacking tortoises have low or prostrate forms of Opuntia. Prickly pears are a prime source of food for the common giant tortoises in the Galápagos islands so they are important in the food web.
Prickly pears differ from other cacti in having two distinctly different types of spines: needle-like ones that resemble those on many other cacti; and very short bristles clustered at the eyes, or “areoles,” on the pads. The bristles, known as “glochids,” are not seen on other plants.
Charles Darwin was the first to note that these cacti have thigmotactic anthers: when the anthers are touched, they curl over, depositing their pollen.
These cacti can look harmless but dislodge easily and have tiny barbs that embed themselves in the skin. Though not dangerous, they are irritating and difficult to remove. So be careful when you’re close to any opuntia.
Indian Fig Prickly Pear
The Indian fig (O. ficus-indica) is perhaps the best known and most utilized species of the prickly pears. It’s an important commercial crop for arid regions where it is grown for its large sweet fruits, sometimes called “tunas.”
These fruits come in yellow, red and pink, and are eaten fresh, used to make refreshing drinks, or used in jellies and candies.
The Southwest cattle industry also uses it for forage, and the pads are an important part of Mexican cuisine. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones falls between 7 and 10, the Indian fig has been found as far north as Canada.
Spineless Prickly Pears
The spineless prickly pears (O. ellisiana, O. stricta or O. robusta) are primarily used as ornamental plants when outside their normal growing environment.
Although they are spineless, they still have fine stiff hairs (called glochids), which can irritate the skin. They have bright yellow flowers that sometimes have a red flush.
The pads can be green or have a bluish waxy coating. Although O. ellisiana and O. stricta are more shrub-like at 2 to 5 feet tall, the Opunita robusta can grow into a small tree of 15 feet tall. They bear sweet fruits and have edible pads similar to the Indian Fig variety.
Purple Prickly Pears
Several prickly pears have a colorful purple blush on their pads. The “Santa Rita” prickly pear (O. violacea) has pretty purple pads that deepen in color during times of stress or drought.
The variety called “Baby Rita” (O. basilaris) has purple pads, grows to only 8 inches and has pink flowers. Some blind prickly pears (O. rufida) have a reddish purple tinge.
All “Santa Rita” prickly pear are hardy enough to withstand frosts but thrive in the more arid parts of U.S. Department of Agriculture zones 7 to 10.
Miniature Prickly Pears
Many prickly pears grow in low clumps or form miniature pads. The golden beavertail prickly pears (O. aurea) grow pads that reach 2 inches across and have clear yellow flowers.
The bunny ears, or polka dot, prickly pears (O. microdasys “Albata”) forms tight clumps of small pads covered in snowy white spines.
The unusual Joseph’s coat prickly pear (O. monacantha variegata) grows to about 18 inches and forms variegated green and cream pads and small red flowers.
All are hardy from U.S. Department of Agriculture zones 7 to 10 except the variegated form, which is hardy down to zone 9.
Some opuntia species have glochids but lack needle spines. One of these is Opuntia basilaris, commonly known as the Beavertail cactus.
It is native to the Southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. In California, it is found from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada through the Mojave Desert.
The plants are seldom more than a foot tall, but in time, they can grow to be a clump measuring several feet across.
Opuntia basilaris can be gray-green in color, but often it is bluish and acquires a purple tinge in strong light. It is tough, very drought-tolerant and easy to grow in well-drained areas. Under exceptionally dry conditions, its pads may become wrinkled or puckered, but this is not a cause for worry. The pads will plump up again when a little water makes its way to the plant.
Spring is the flowering time for the Beavertail cactus, and its large magenta-colored flowers make quite a splash. Plants with pink or yellow flowers are not unknown, but they’re uncommon.
Are They Good Or Bad?
Depending who you ask.
A good crop for dry areas, as it efficiently converts even a little water into biomass, the prickly pear is as vital to the Mexican economy as corn and tequila agave.
Prickly pears (mostly Opuntia stricta) were originally imported into Europe during the 1500s and Australia in the 18th century for gardens and were later used as a natural agricultural fencing and in an attempt to establish a cochineal dye industry.
They quickly became a widespread invasive weed, eventually converting 101,000 sq mi of farming land into an impenetrable green jungle of prickly pear, in places 20 ft high.
Many farmers were driven off their land by what they called the “green hell”; their abandoned homes were crushed under the cactus growth, which advanced at a rate of 1,000,000 acres per year. In 1919, the Australian federal government established the Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board to coordinate efforts with state governments to eradicate the weed.<
Early attempts at mechanical removal and poisonous chemicals failed, so in the last resort, biological control was attempted. The moth Cactoblastis cactorum, from South America, whose larvae eat prickly pear, was introduced in 1925 and rapidly reduced the cactus population.
After Columbus, ships carried the edible pads, or nopales, to prevent scurvy and to feed the dye insect, distributing the cactus to much of the rest of the world. It became naturalized in the Mediterranean, and many now consider the New World cactus a native.
Typically eaten without the thick outer skin, it tastes like juicy, very sweet watermelon. The bright red-and-purple or white-and-yellow flesh contains many tiny hard seeds, usually swallowed.
Native Mexicans ground the seeds for flour, and many North Africans press them for oil. Jams and jellies that resemble strawberries and figs in color and flavor are made from the pulp and juice.
Mexicans have used Opuntia for thousands of years to make an alcoholic drink called colonche. In Sicily, a prickly pear-flavored liqueur called Ficodi is produced. In Malta, a liqueur called Bajtra (the Maltese name for prickly pear) is made from the fruit, which can be found growing wild in most fields.
The fruit was imported from Mexico and the Mediterranean to the United States in the early 20th century by Italian and Greek immigrants. It lost popularity in the ’50s, but regained it in the ’90s, thanks to Mexican immigrants.
Mexican and other Southwestern residents eat the young cactus pads as well, usually picked before the spines harden. Skinned or unskinned, sliced into strips, fried with eggs and jalapeños, and served as a breakfast treat, they have a texture and flavor like string beans.
In Mexico, though, the cacti are raised commercially, and the fruit (called tuna) and the edible pads (nopales) are marketed. If you don’t have access to wild cactus and can’t grow it in a backyard patch, you may be able to find it canned in the Mexican foods section of your supermarket
Prickly pears are delicious on the inside but vicious on the outside. Here’s how to get past their prickly exterior and into their sweet, succulent soul.
You’ll need kitchen tongs, a sharp knife, a fork, a cutting board, a big bowl, a plate, and a food mill.
You’ll probably also want some tweezers or duct tape on hand to remove the inevitable hairy thorns that will get stuck in your skin despite your best efforts.
- Slice both ends of the prickly pear off. Discard them.
- Make one long vertical slice down the body of the prickly pear.
- Slip your finger into the slice and grab a hold of the skin.
- Peel back the skin: Begin to peel back the thick fleshy skin that’s wrapped around the prickly pear. Discard the skin. You’ll be left with the prickly pear itself.
The flesh is studded with tons of little edible seeds, if you like them, feel free to just chop the prickly pear up and eat, seeds and all.
Extract the juice: To extract the prickly pear juice, place the “husked” prickly pears into a blender or food processor and pulse until liquefied.
Place the juice into a fine mesh sieve and push out the juice into a pitcher or bowl. Discard the remaining pulp and seeds.
Use the juice as you like. Depending on the size of the prickly pears, 6 to 12 prickly pears will get you about 1 cup of juice. It’s great mixed in with some fresh lemonade, just use equal parts of prickly pear juice to lemonade.
Here is a great recipe!
Agua de Tuna
Cook Time 5 minutes
Total Time 5 minutes
Servings 2 servings
Author Dora Stone
3 Prickly pears, red, large
1 cup Water
½ cup Orange juice freshly squeezed
1 tsp. Agave syrup light
Slice both ends of the prickly pear off. Make one long vertical slice down the body of the prickly pear. Peel back the skin, by pushing it back with a knife or your hand. The skin should come right off, and you should be left with just the prickly pear.
Place peeled prickly pears in blender with 1 cup of water. Blend at the lowest speed for 1 minute.
Strain and discard the seeds and pulp.
Place prickly pear juice back in the blender, with orange juice, and agave syrup. Blend until smooth.
Serve over ice.