Prickly pear cactus: formidable or user friendly

An early morning walk at a nearby park reminded me of two things.  First, that it is August and everything is pretty much dry and brown as it usually is by this time of summer.  The scenery along the trails is rather blah except for the occasional color of prickly pear fruit.

Fruit – with some kind of bug on it!
These colorful bulbs gave me my second reminder: the usefulness of the prickly pear cactus. Long before the Europeans came to the Americas Native Americans were well accquainted with the many varieties of prickly pear and the usefulness of the fruit and the paddle like leaves known as nopales.

Spring flowers

The paddles and fruit are edible and are commonly used to make a variety of dishes as well as soups, beverages, jelly, and candy.  Obviously, the small spines must be removed first (which is not easy!). The small, tender paddles are known as nopalitos and are enjoyed locally with scrambled eggs, although personally I don’t care for them! In extreme drought when grazing grass is not available ranchers will use a torch to burn off the stickers and spines so cattle can eat the cactus.

The pulp and juice are believed to have medicinal qualities and are used in Mexico for treatment of wounds and ailments of the digestive and urinary tracts. A type of scale insect that lives on the paddles is harvested to make the cochineal (red) dye that is commonly used to manufacture makeup and as a natural red food coloring.  Check the ingredients label the next time you eat something red and you may see “carmine” listed! At one time cochineal was so highly prized that its price was quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges (per Wikipedia).


There are way too many varieties to even count, much less discuss here.  But do remember that they all have stickers of some type which makes them very formidable. I prefer to stay well away from them!



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