Prickly pears, also known as nopales for the pads and tunas for the fruit, are truly one of the world’s most amazing plants. They have what seems like a hundred beneficial uses and require next to no additional water or care. In some countries, they go a long way towards feeding the populace with a minimum of cost.
Of the Opuntia genus, they belong to the Cactaceae (or cactus) family. Although native to the Americas, they also flourish in Africa, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East. There are dozens of varieties, and between them all they can survive in a wide range of soils and climates (although they are typically associated with hot, dry areas with poor, well drained soil). They are very drought tolerant and some varieties can even withstand severe freezes.
Both the pads and fruit are delicious and highly nutritious. They can be eaten raw, cooked fresh, pickled, dehydrated, or made into jelly, candy, juice and wine. They also have many other uses, including a wide range of medicinal functions, a low-cost animal feed, a water-proofing agent for paints and plasters, predator-proof fencing, shampoo, pigmentation, and even fibers to use in woven objects like baskets. Now do you see why we love them so much?
Throughout this article, we’ll be addressing issues such as proper handling and propagation, the various uses of this miracle plant, as well as ways in which to cook and preserve the fruit and pads so that you can enjoy them year-round.
For more information, view How To: Prickly Pears