Origin: Native to the Americas Opuntia species have become naturalized on every continent except Antarctica.
Energetics: Cool & Moist (pad, fruit, flower). Sweet (the pad is not sweet), Sour. Vital Stimulant.
Properties: Diuretic, demulcent, antiseptic, nutritive, adaptogenic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, hypotensive, anodyne, rejuvenative, anti-fatigue, hypoglycemic/insulin-sensitizing, antioxidant.
Uses: Urinary tract infections (cools and soothes urinary tract; flowers), high triglycerides/cholesterol, improves insulin sensitivity, relieves prostate inflammation and swelling, relieves gastric irritability, relieves acid reflux and GERD, improves energy levels, relieves chronic joint pain and stiffness, improves cellular regeneration, protects against certain cancers, topically relieving to bites, stings, burns, sprains, breaks, and bruises.
What’s in a Name?
Oddly, this native American plant (Opuntia) is named for an ancient city of Greece, Opus. Well, this ancient city seemed to have been just as serviceable as our beloved, humble cactus. Just as prickly pear pads may take root wherever they may lay, this Grecian city had equally impartial tendencies by fighting alongside the Greeks, Persians, or, finally, the Romans whomsoever may provide the most immediately available benefit. There may be some relation after all.
We get the Mexican Spanish term, Nopal, from the Aztec, or Nahuatl, language word, nopalli.
In the Field
Near Tucson we have three common species - Opuntia engelmannii, O. phaeacantha, and O. cholorotica. O. engelmannii is by far the most common prickly pear species within a 50-mile radius of Tucson, particularly towards the south along the bajadas spilling into the Santa Cruz River. Going further north I’ve found O. phaeacantha and O. chlorotica mixing in with O. engelmannii across wide swaths of old rangeland, perhaps even hybrid varieties are present. I have been far more experienced with viewing these plants during the fruiting stage rather than the flowering stage. However, viewing the plant as a whole can be sufficient enough to identify Opuntia species outside of the flowering stage. O. englemannii can exhibit long white spines turning red at the base, both on the pads/stems and fruit. The glochids are usually yellow to reddish-brown. O. chlorotica glochids are a little longer but they seem to encircle the pad creating a fuzzy bear appearance. The pads of O. chlorotica can appear like plate-size pancakes and their fruits are squat and bulging with a pink appearance. In my opinion, they are less sweet than a ripe O. engelmannii fruit which is darker, purple approaching black once very ripe and soft. I might say this is quite possibly the best for making wine (even though I haven’t done so). It seems that O. chlorotica fruits ripen later in the season, perhaps the last of the bunch. Whereas, O. phaeacantha’s fruits ripen quite early with pronounced sweetness when O. englemannii fruits are still quite sour by comparison. The flesh of O. phaeacantha fruits is green just under the skin, but purple at the core (see far left), whereas O. engelmannii fruits are deep purple throughout.
When gathering prickly pear fruits you want them to come off easy. If you ever have to yank them off the stem then they are not yet ripe enough to eat. Further, if you harvest them much too early they will be very viscous, or mucous-like, and taste very sour, even bitter. I have found that the best time for harvesting the fruit, that is for optimal ripeness, or sweetness, (although may not be the height of its medicinal properties) is when the weather has been wet for several days followed by a period of hot sun which will often be in September. These fruits are so sweet bees or wasps may be found eating directly from the fruit. It is these fruits which may make the best wine. I have spoken to some who grew up with homemade prickly pear wine as a tradition during Thanksgiving feasts. Notice the photo above. There are red fleshy stumps where the fruits had just been picked. That is a sign of a perfectly ripe fruit. In the case of O. chlorotica, the fleshy stumps may be green even when the fruit is ripe.
Prickly pear has been known as a medicine on this continent for several generations if not millennia. We think of prickly pear adorning the United States of Mexico national flag, and its significance in the founding of Tenochitlán. However, there are native Opuntia spp. which can be found from Washington to Connecticut. Although not as prolific as they are in the deserts of the southwestern states, these Opuntia spp. were also used by various tribes as medicines during times of need. Currently, Prickly pear is being studied extensively for its effects on our blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, systemic inflammation, cancerous growth, viral infections, etc. Just as these are our main concerns of the day, so too were there major concerns for those who lived across the continent before railroads crossed it, before (modern) horses galloped across it, and before trade in steel tools began to overtake previous ways of life. Wounds, sores, infections, torn flesh, broken bones, severe burns, bites, stings, wart and mole removal, pains, diarrhea, constipation, encourage milk flow, increase urine flow, lubrication for placenta removal, and staunching bleeding were some of the many uses once employed. That’s just the medicinal side. Opuntia spp. were extensively used for food (bud, fruit, stem, root), and various utilitarian uses from tattooing to fishing.
Currently, I find both the fresh and pasteurized juice to be an excellent anti-inflammatory having great effect on chronic joint pain, muscle ache, old injuries, from arthritis to tendonitis to bursitis and all itis’s in between. It is immediately effective and if use is continued its effects are long-lasting. I have seen several ounces taken in one day produce profound effects (also enhancing physical performance in exercise routines or daily labor). As a general recommendation for chronic musculoskeletal inflammation, take 2oz of the pasteurized juice each day for one week, then 1oz of juice for another two weeks. Less severe or acute cases may respond well to simply doing 1-4oz in one serving. In cases of insulin resistance I recommend a tea of Cinnamon bark combined with Holy Basil then combined with our 100% Prickly Pear juice to improve insulin sensitivity. This may also do wonders for curbing a strong appetite or sugar cravings. Improving insulin sensitivity across the population would greatly reduce or prevent some of our most devastating diseases of the day (various cancers, cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, PCOS) as insulin resistance is often at the heart of these serious conditions. Dietary changes, micronutrient supplementation, and exercise to improve muscle tone thereby utilizing blood sugar more efficiently are all essential in order to turnaround this very controllable disease state. Our ubiquitous prickly pear can play an important dietary role in insulin resistance.
Another quality of import is its effects on gastric ulcers, heartburn, and acid reflux. Many report nearly instant relief from ingesting the juice. I certainly do not consider prickly pear juice to be an appetite stimulant. It is cool and moist and dampens digestion (unless its fermented) which are excellent
for soothing gastric heat and irritation (see other gastric herbs with similar effect and qualities: marshmallow root, licorice root, comfrey root). Those with deficient digestion may not do well taking prickly pear close to meals (again, unless it’s fermented). It puts out the digestive fire and soothes which is exactly what you want when there’s an ulcer, or acid moving up and scarring the tissue. It does not inhibit acid secretion, per se. It is not prilosec. It soothes and comforts and relieves inflammation. That is very important and very useful for those who suffer such gastric irritability.
Immune stimulation is also significant. I have found an ounce or two of fruit juice stirred into boiling water upon viral infection gives a quick boost to immunity. Energy can be greatly enhanced with the muscles feeling more oxygenated with increased performance and quicker recovery periods. This is not just for athletes. Anyone who’s ever felt like they need another day of rest before they have to get up and do (blank) again would benefit from these effects. Holy basil is another excellent, safe herb to improve fatigue.
Additionally, prickly pear fruit is replete with essential micronutrients. Some of these may play an important role in curbing appetite (although being cold and moist in nature can cause this also) as well as improving insulin sensitivity. Necessary electrolytes may help to improve physical performance and protect against dehydration in our hot desert sun. Bioflavonoids are important antioxidant compounds which protect our cells, reduce inflammation, fight cancers, regenerate cells, and squelch free radicals. (Our Fall 2009 newsletter discussed bioflavonoids in depth; hopefully, these will be archived on our web site again soon!). Last but not least, studies have shown an improvement in hangover symptoms when prickly pear is consumed along with the alcohol.
Prickly Pear Lemonade with Chia seeds - Combine one 12oz bottle of our Prickly Pear Juice to 1 gallon of water with 1 cup of fresh lemon juice. Add 1/4-1/2 cup chia seeds and 1/2 cup organic sugar (optional). Stir vigorously concentrate and continuously over 5-10 minutes. Within 20 minutes the chia seeds will be fully moistened and your drink is ready to serve!
I have noticed a variety of creatures using some form of prickly pear for food whether it’s the pads, fruit, flower nectar, or glucose-rich sap. The pads are most frequently consumed by javelina, or peccary, but cattle and donkeys will go for it during severe drought. The fruits are likely consumed by innumerable beings. I have seen hornets or wasps directly consuming the fresh fruits still on the pad when they are very sweet. I once saw a Pinacate beetle (Eleodes) consuming the flesh of a fruit which was laying on the ground. And, of course, coyotes and desert tortoises relish the fruits of prickly pear. Pack rats, cottontails, jack rabbits, deer, bighorn sheep and even raccoons love to consume prickly pears. Ants will worship a prickly pear cactus which exudes a clear, sugary sap from its aereoles just as they do many sap producing plants. The pads cooked for several hours in many gallons of water was used to add to traditional lime plaster in Mexico. This gave the plaster a workability and provided enhanced protection from the elements. In the field, prickly pear pads are a wonderfully universal first aid treatment for bites, burns, stings, wounds, bruises, broken bones, etc. If stung by a rattlesnake, one of the first things I would be reaching for would be a prickly pear pad (and then the Echinacea and chuchupate). Grab two relatively flat stones that fit in your hands comfortably and rub all spines and glochids off the pad while still on the plant. Trim it off the plant. Fillet it down the middle (like slicing a bagel). Now place the inner portion directly on the effected area. Allow it to remain for 10-20 minutes depending on how severe the injury. Simply change pads and continue therapy until swelling, inflammation, and pain are resolved.
For delicious Prickly Pear Shrub Syrups, visit Desert Forager.
Knishinsky, Ran. 2004. Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine. Healing Arts Press.
Moerman, Daniel. Native American Ethnobotany database. http://herb.umd.umich.edu/
University of Michigan.