Prickly pear is in the genus Opuntia and was named after the ancient Greek city of Opus. It was said an edible plant grew there and could be propagated just by rooting its leaves. While prickly pear does not technically have leaves, the paddles containing the spines are modified stems of the plant. However, if you place a cacti pad on the ground, water it for a few weeks, it will root itself and start a new plant. They are exceedingly easy to grow. They will spread out about three feet or more and reach heights of around twelve to fifteen inches. The pads will be blue-green or green and have ¼ to ½ inch spines covering them. The bright yellow flowers appear in mid-summer and once those blooms have died off, the reddish colored fruit appears. This fruit is often referred to as tuna, which comes from the Spanish or Haitian name for the plant.
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Prickly pear holds significant cultural importance to the Mexican people, so much so, that their flag contains an image of the prickly pear cactus with an eagle holding a snake. The significance of the image comes from an Aztec legend. During the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries the Aztec people governed most of the land we know of today as Mexico. One day an Aztec priest approached his people and told them that Huitzilopochtli, the God of sun and war spoke to him. He was instructed to tell his people they had to leave and set up a new capital city. To find this new location they were to travel until they spotted an eagle atop a prickly pear cactus devouring a snake. Eventually they came upon such a place and named it Tenochtitlan, which translates to “place of the prickly pear cactus.” This ancient city is now at the center of Mexico City. To honor this legend, the Mexican flag contains the imagery associated with the legend.
The pads of the cactus are called nopales, and are used in many remedies, including one for burns, much like using aloe vera for the same purpose. Drinks to treat hepatitis can be made from the juices of the pads as well as to help control diabetes. Raw pulp lowers the absorption rate of sugar in the blood, thus helping avoid insulin shock. Traditionally this plant has been used to treat inflammation, acid reflux and other digestive disorders, urinary tract infections, as well as skin conditions.
The diversity of this hardy cactus seems never-ending. The Aztecs used the juice as a form of adherent. They would soak the cactus pads overnight in water, and in the morning, they would be incredibly sticky. They would mix the sticky pads with mortar to create a strong glue-like substance that is still used in parts of Mexico today in construction. Wheels overheating on your cart? Well, we have a solution for that too. Apply the juices of this cactus to the wheels and no more burning wheels.
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To this day there are borders of prickly pear throughout Mexico to mark boundary lines for property. No need for manmade barbed wire when nature provides a suitable alternative. Not only have humans found they can protect their property borders with this gnarly plant-----animals also benefit from its protection. Birds, rodents, and other small creatures will burrow or nest under the safety of the cactus pads. After all, not many predators would want to tackle those sharp spines to gain a meal.
Probably my favorite use for prickly pear is in the culinary department. There is a plethora of dishes that can be made from the juices of the pad, as well as the fruit. Anything from salads, soups, wine, desserts, main dishes, breads, and candy are all options for creative cooks willing to try something nature provides. You will not only find yourself experiencing new and unique recipes but gain the potential health benefits from this vitamin and mineral packed plant. Happy harvesting but be mindful of the stickers (they bite).