We have introduced another native southwestern plant to our WishGarden! Prickly Pear, or Opuntia ficus-indica, is gaining popularity amongst herbalists across the globe for good reason. Here in the Southwest region of the United Sates, we know this plant produces delicious, vibrant fruit with high medicinal value because it's been used by our ancestors for thousands of years!
Opuntia is native to Mexico and extends north into New Mexico, Arizona, and California. It belongs to the Cactaceae or Cacti family. It's more abundant along the Mexico-United States border and sustains many communities with livestock.
The vibrant red-purple, pear-shaped fruits are rich in nutrients and feed livestock when there is no grass present. The plant itself is embedded with smalls seeds inside and can grow six feet tall. Imagine walking through a forest of mature Prickly Pear Cacti that tall? Ouch!
Prickly Pears are hardy plants that can handle harsh, hot conditions. The oval-shaped, flat leaves (or paddles) are about an inch thick with long, sharp thorns. Luckily, the fruit on top of the leaves above the thorns, making it at least slightly less difficult to harvest. The oval, five-inch-tall fruits themselves are covered in tiny thorns, therefore it's super important to rid the fruit of these nearly invisible (but still painful) spikes before processing the fruit for consumption.
The deep-purple fruits contain a delicious liquid called colonche or queso de tuna, a Mexican delicacy. Mexican culture refers to the plant as "Tuna Cactus," which explains their unique names for the fruit innards.
Traditional and Modern Uses
Native Americans used all parts of the Prickly Pear plant, including the base of the plant, specifically using the pads or "nopales." You may recognize, "nopal," the more commonly used name in modern health food stores. Spines or thorns were used as needles by many tribes, while the fruit was used to dye textiles. The unprocessed pads were split and applied to topical skin ailments very carefully to soothe inflammation. Not a piece went to waste!
Photo of nopal by Lauren Ann Nichols.
With today's abundant selection of first-aid care, we thankfully pass on having to work with difficult, spiny plants. Instead, the fruit of the Prickly Pear is prized for its medicinal value in balancing blood sugar levels, achieving optimal liver and kidney health, or improving the morning after an evening of alcohol consumption, via herbal tinctures like our new Party Prep!
The fruit contains nutritious compounds like polyphenols (or flavonoids), fatty acids, and amino acids. I imagine the fatty acids or lipid compounds have something to do with desert dwellers nicknaming the fruit "Tuna," as mentioned above. The various flavonoids salvage free radicals in our bodies, help pull toxins out of the blood steam, and support healthy blood-sugar levels.
Photo of Prickly Pear, or "Tuna," by Lauren Ann Nichols.
The vitamin content in Prickly Pear has been compared to vitamin-packed fruits like bananas, grapes, or apples! This southwest gem contains 300 mg of Vitamin C in one Pear.
Now that's what I call a diamond in the rough!
Lauren Ann Nichols-Sheffler attended The Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism and received her certificate in medical herbalism. She is the owner of Blue Yarrow Herbs aka Herbal Vice, an herbal product company practicing bioregional herbalism by cultivating plants and sourcing locally. Lauren loves educating and advocating for plant sustainability. She is the sourcing and Purchasing manager for WishGarden Herbs.
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, or sell any product.