Many of you may not be aware of this, but I love succulents and cacti. I think they are astonishingly beautiful and exceedingly unique. Their ability to store water in their stems/leaves is awesome and super helpful in dry areas and drought. Also, while most of us think of these plants in relation to deserts, not a lot of people are aware that the swampy state of Florida has quite a few native cacti as well. So today I figured that I'd introduce you to our most common native Cactus, the Prickly Pear.
Opuntia stricta (Prickly Pear) is commonly found all throughout Florida, though mainly found in the coastal grasslands, coastal strands, shell mounds, beach dunes, and coastal hammocks. It is, of course, in the Cactaceae, or Cactus, family. This cactus can get quite tall, but often tops out at around 6.5ft, with erect stems that are branched and covered with spines. Most Prickly Pears tend to sprawl and stay close to the ground, but in Florida they have more of a tendency to grow taller. They often grow in clusters or colonies, but can also be found as individual plants. The pads of this cactus are stems that have evolved to hold water and act like leaves by photosynthesizing. The pads also contain an antifreeze compound that allows this cactus to survive in extremely low to freezing temperatures. They can be 2-7 inches (5-17 centimeters) long and 1.5-5 inches (4-12 centimeters) wide. The spines emerge from the center of small dot-like structures called areoles. Each areole contains glochids (small hair like structures that irritate the skin) and some even contain spines. The flowers emerge from the ends of the pads in early summer. These flowers are yellow and quite large. The fruit of this particular species is reddish purple. Other commonly used species have flowers that have orange, and sometimes even some red, in the center and their fruit can range in colors from a light pinkish red to a deep reddish purple. The flowers are pollinated by insects but they also have a unique feature, their stamens move in response to touch. This is to both encourage cross pollination, aid in self pollination, and to discourage pollen and nectar “robbers” (insects that consume the flower's resources without providing assistance in the pollination process). If you want to read more about this fascinating phenomenon, check out Awkward Botany's post here.
This plant is a staple food of the indigenous peoples of North America. The pads can be found in some supermarkets and are sold as Nopales or Nopalitos. The pads, fruit, and flowers are all edible and can be eaten raw or cooked, though the areoles and spines should be removed before preparing or consuming. The fruit and pads are also commonly juiced. The juice makes a darn good margarita, but is also commonly given to diabetic patients to help control their blood glucose levels. The fruit is sweet, but not as sweet as other species, particularly the Opuntia ficus-indica. Some Mexican restaurants will serve Prickly Pear or Nopales as appetizers, or scrambled with eggs as a breakfast or brunch item.
Common Names- Prickly Pear, Nopales, Nopal Cactus, Indian Fig, Cactus Pear, Barbary Fig, and Tuna Fig
Scientific Name- Opuntia spp. Commonly used species include Opuntia stricta (our Florida native), O. ficus-indica, O. megacantha, and O. amychlea.
Edibility- The pads (Nopales or Nopalitos) are a staple food in indigenous cultures of North America. They are often grilled, sauteed, or even scrambled with eggs, though they are perfectly safe to consume raw as well. The flowers are also edible, as well as the fruits which are often called Cactus Pears. The fruit and pads both have areoles that contain irritating fibers and/or spines, so you should remove these before preparing or consuming. The pads and fruit are also commonly juiced.
Summary of Actions- Appetite depressant, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiulcer, antiviral, cardiotonic, hepatoprotective, hypoglycemic, and neuro-protective.
Parts Used- Pads, Flowers, and Fruit.
Traditional Native American Uses- Prickly Pear Cactus has been used in Native American cultures for centuries. The heated cactus pads have served as poultices for rheumatism, and the fruit of the plant is consumed as treatment for diarrhea, asthma and gonorrhea. Indigenous people also consume prickly pear to address high blood pressure, gastric acidity, ulcers, fatigue, shortness of breath, prostate enlargement, glaucoma, and liver disorders.
Diabetes- Not only is this cactus high in fiber, which helps to control blood glucose levels. It also contains compounds that take a more active role in balancing out blood sugar. This plant is highly recommended to both prevent diabetes, and help control blood sugar in those who are currently diabetic.
High Cholesterol- The fiber content of this plant helps to control cholesterol levels, prevents buildup in the arteries, and helps keep the circulatory system healthy in general.
Digestion- The high fiber content of Prickly Pear Cactus helps to move food more efficiently in the digestive tract. It also helps to prevent ulcers, and improve digestion by reducing internal inflammation.
Wound and Burn Care- One traditional use of this cactus that is continued today is for wound and burn care. Much like Aloe, Prickly Pear is a great herb to use in the case of burns. It helps take the “sting” out of them while providing a barrier that helps prevent infection. It's also a great herb to help speed the healing of both wounds and burns.
HIV- Prickly Pear extracts are currently being studied for their antiviral properties in relation to certain viruses. One of particular note is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. Research has been limited thus far, but this plant shows promise to help control this virus and others.
Immune Boosting- Prickly pear is full of vitamin C, just one serving contains 1/3 the recommended daily amount. It's also a very effective anti-inflammatory, which helps to improve immunity as well as general health.
Hangovers- Prickly Pear is a folk remedy for hangovers. I usually don't put much stock in hangover remedies, instead I tend to emphasize the importance of hydration when you set out to drink heavily (and I don't recommend doing this, ever). However, in a Tulane University study published in the June 28, 2004 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers found that volunteers who took a prickly pear extract five hours before consuming five to 7 alcoholic drinks had significantly less nausea, dry mouth and loss of appetite the following day compared to those who took a placebo. (The extract did not prevent hangover-related headaches and dizziness, however.) The researchers suggested that the benefits were related to prickly pear’s strong anti-inflammatory effects.
Cautions, Contraindications, and Warnings- Generally considered safe, practitioners recommend that people gradually add prickly pear cactus to their diets. Both the edible plant and the dietary supplements can cause negative side effects in some people. Nausea, increased stool volume and frequency, mild diarrhea and abdominal fullness are the most common side effects. While they are not the norm, easing prickly pear into the diet can minimize these effects.
I only included a basic introduction to Prickly Pear. I hope you have gained a new appreciation for this amazing little cactus. If you have any questions or comments please leave them below. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram or updates on my adventures in Nature. Find me on YouTube and check out my videos! Follow me on Instagram (BatLadyHerbailst). I also have a few things up on Teespring, check it out! Also, if you like what I do and want to see more, Become a Patron!
Florida Wildflowers A Comprehensive Guide by Walter Kingsley Taylor
The Amazing Cacti- 7 Benefits of Prickly Pear: Wide Open Eats: https://www.wideopeneats.com/the-amazing-cactus-7-prickly-pear-health-benefits/
Cactus, A Medicinal Food: US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3550841/
Eastern Prickly Pear: US Forest Service: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/opuntia_humifusa.shtml
Food As Medicine- Prickly Pear Cactus: American Botanical Council: http://cms.herbalgram.org/heg/volume12/09September/FaMPricklyPear.html?utm_source=hootsuite&ts=1567462532&signature=db4abb75b394ddd68876cf33a41ff96a
Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere- Prickly Pear Cactus: American Indian Health and Diet Project: http://www.aihd.ku.edu/foods/prickly_pear_cactus.html
Medicinal Importance of Prickly Pear Cactus: Medicinal and Aromatic Plants: https://www.longdom.org/proceedings/medicinal-importance-of-prickly-pear-cactus-43375.html
Prickly Pear: Annie's Rmemdy: https://www.anniesremedy.com/opuntia-ficus-indica-prickly-pear.php
Prickly Pear, A Cactus Cure?: Dr. Weil: https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/balanced-living/wellness-therapies/prickly-pear-a-cactus-cure/
Prickly Pear Cactus Plant Benefits: Herb Wisdom: https://www.herbwisdom.com/herb-prickly-pear-cactus.html
What Are the Benefits of Nopal?: Medical News Today: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320293.php