May 25, 2022

I have mentioned when I moved from California to Kansas, I brought six cacti in large terra cotta pots. They had flourished in the Bay Area climate and had grown to be quite large. I always kept them outside and knew it got cold and even snowed in the mountains of the southwestern deserts, so I thought nothing of it when the first winter approached. It may have been because they were in containers rather than the ground, but all six died. Now that I live in Arkansas, I have a neighbor who has several large prickly pears placed near their mailbox that appear to be about 15 years old (size). One is in the ground but the largest is in a container, and they are left outside year-round. This last week both prickly pears burst into brilliant flowers.

When I looked online, I found prickly pear cactus (Opuntia var.), is a genus of flowering plants in the family Cactaceae.  Prickly pear represents fifteen species of the Opuntia genus in the North American deserts.  Opuntia also hybridizes readily between species, which can make classification difficult.  The prickly originated in South America and migrated north into Mexico and the southern US.  Species of this genus flourish into Canada and are the most northern ranging cacti, and they are the only cacti in the far eastern states of the US.  The perennial plants are typically many-branched with distinctive jointed, fleshy, flattened, often rounded stem-segments known as cladodes or phylloclades (pads).  The pads are modified branches or stems that function for water storage, photosynthesis, and flower production.  The prickly pear blooms during the April-June and the species determines the color of the flower.  They can be yellow, orange, peach, cream, red, or a ‘mild’ combination of two colors.  A prickly can grow to a height of 5 feet (1.5 m) and can spread to a diameter of 15 feet (4.5 m).

Everything but the roots of the prickly pear are considered edible and can be eaten whole (boiled or grilled) or made into juice and jams.  The fruits are sold in stores as “tuna” and the pads are “nopalito”, from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word nōpalli.  The plant is high in fiber, antioxidants, and carotenoids, and is a popular food in Latin America.  The fruits are delicate and are harvested by hand.  The small spines are removed by rubbing them on an abrasive surface or sweeping them through grass, then they are peeled.  The pads are also harvested by hand and are either eaten or used for animal fodder.  Spineless cultivars are preferred, but wild types of the plants are often used after the spines burned off.  The most common culinary species is the Indian fig opuntia (Opuntia ficus-indica).  I have tried eating wild prickly in the desert.  Now if I could just get those spines out of my tongue.

THOUGHTS:  Prickly pear is said to treat diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, enlarged prostate, lower cholesterol, prevent heart disease, and lessen hangovers, “but more research is needed.”  It is being studied for wound healing, a potential anti-cancer agent, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties.  Side effects may include “mild diarrhea, nausea, increased stool volume, increased stool frequency, and abdominal fullness.”  The article even said to check with my doctor before using.  This sounds much like the side effects and disclaimers provided by drug companies on my TV.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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