prickly pear

Prickly Pear Cacti – Many Varieties, Many Uses

Prickly pear cacti (genus Opuntia) range from southern Canada to southern South America, in habitats ranging from arid desert to tropical semiarid woodlands and high mountains. There are about 18 species in the Sonoran Desert region, some of which form hybrids. Native peoples recognize many more varieties. I have five (maybe six) varieties of prickly pear in my yard. The most common in the Tucson area is the Engelmann prickly pear. The first photo above shows the ripe fruit. The second shows the flowers which start out reddish and get yellow as they mature. All cactus fruit is edible.

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM), cacti of genus Opuntia, which includes chollas, are distinguished from other cacti by four characteristics. “First, the stems grow in distinctly jointed segments. The elongation of joints is permanently terminated by the onset of the dry season; subsequent growth of the plant occurs by the initiation of new joints by branching from the areoles. (Other cacti have indeterminate growth. A saguaro stem, for example, grows ever longer each growing season until the plant dies or the stem tip is damaged.) Second, whether or not they have regular spines, Opuntioid areoles bear glochids (usually small to minute, barbed spines that are very sharp and brittle, and very easily detached). Third, rudimentary leaves are present on new joints. Fourth, the seeds have a pale covering called an aril; most other cacti have shiny black seeds.”

Prickly pears are Western Hemisphere plants, but they are now found all over the world. “Sailors brought them back from the New World in the sixteenth century and they are found in Italy, India, Ceylon, South Africa and Australia. In all but Italy, the hope was to raise cochineal insects, but the insects died and the cactus escaped to become part of the landscape.” – ASDM

Cochineal insects, a source of red dye, grow, sometimes profusely, on prickly pear pads under white fuzzy webs, especially in August. See link below.

Spineless varieties of prickly pear were also tried as food for cattle. In South Africa, I saw many plantations on farms for that purpose.

Use as food:

Both the pads and fruit are eaten by pack rats, jackrabbits, javelina, insects, and humans. Note: the pads contain oxalic acid which can make humans sick. However, new spring pads contain much less oxalic acid so these pads were used for human consumption. Preparation may include boiling to leach out the acid. Many native American tribes used the pads as their green vegetable. The flesh is mucilaginous (like okra) and was used to thicken soups.

Fruit from any of the prickly pears can be eaten by humans. The fruit turns reddish-purple when ripe. (The ripe fruit is called “tuna”or “cactus fig”) Some preparation is required to remove the spines and glochids. Native Americans rolled the fruit in sand or other plant material. Cowboys used to put the fruit on a stick and burn off the glochids with a match or over a camp fire.

Generally people eat the flesh of the fruit and discard the seeds. The seeds are edible, but too many cause intestinal upsets. The seeds can be parched, dried, and ground into a flour. They don’t cause digestive upset that way. The juice of the fruit may be made into a syrup or jelly or used in pies and drinks.

Flower petals can be used to garnish salads.

Preparation techniques for both pads and fruit are shown here: and

Medicinal use:

According to WebMD: Prickly pear cactus is used to treat type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). It is also used to fight viral infections. Prickly pear cactus contains fiber and pectin, which can lower blood glucose by decreasing the absorption of sugar in the stomach and intestine. Some researchers think that it might also decrease cholesterol levels, and kill viruses in the body.

According to DesertUSA, “Researchers are using the prickly pear juice, produced by Arizona Cactus Ranch in Southern Arizona, for their studies, because it is pure. Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tucson Arizona uses Arizona Cactus Ranch Prickly Pear Nectar in their Alternative Medicine Diabetic Preventive Program since 1997. Prickly pear extract has also been shown to reduce the severity and occurrence of hangovers if taken in advance of drinking. Nausea, dry mouth, appetite loss, and alcohol-related inflammation were all reduced in test subjects who ingested prickly pear extract 5 hours prior to drinking. You can make your own tests and see if it works for you, which is the only test that really counts.”

The juice from the pads was also used topically to treat cuts, bruises, and inflammation of the skin.


Other uses:

The juice from prickly pears has long been used to strengthen adobe mortar. It was so used in the restoration of the San Xavier Mission in Tucson.

As mentioned above, there are many species and hybrids, so exact identification may be difficult. ASDM notes: “Numerous species of cholla and some prickly pears hybridize with one another. Hybrid populations are fairly common. Some of these hybrids may reproduce sexually; others are sexually sterile but can reproduce vegetatively. There are several such ‘clonal microspecies’ in the Tucson area alone, some of which are restricted to a patch of just a few acres. Most of the descriptions of these species are published only in scientific monographs and have not yet appeared in general plant lists and keys. So if you are frustrated with being unable to identify a cholla or prickly pear from a field guide, be assured that you’re not alone. No field guide can cover all the possible hybrids and ‘microspecies.’”

See also:

A Desert Christmas cactus

Indian Fig – a useful variety of Prickly Pear Cactus

Cochineal the Little Red Bug

A green lynx spider may be lurking in your yard

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Indian Fig – a useful variety of Prickly Pear Cactus

Indian figA spineless variety of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) which originated in Mexico, is now widely used world-wide to provide food for livestock and humans. This cactus goes by various names which include Indian fig and Barbary fig. In Mexican usage, the fruit is called a “tuna” and the plant pad is called “nopal.” The Indian fig can get to as much as 15 feet high and 10 feet wide. Flowers are yellow to yellow-orange.

According to an article in the American Journal of Botany, “Opuntia ficus-indica is a long-domesticated cactus crop that is important in agricultural economies throughout arid and semiarid parts of the world. The biogeographic and evolutionary origins of this species have been obscured through ancient and widespread cultivation and naturalization… the center of domestication for this species is in central Mexico.”

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, writing of Opuntia in general:

“Opuntias are extensively used for food and other purposes by humans. The flesh of some species is edible and tasty. It can be eaten fresh, if care is taken to avoid the glochids on the rind. More often the brilliant red-purple and distinctly-flavored juice is expressed to make drinks, syrup, and jelly. Some prickly pear species are commercially cultivated for fruit production; numerous superior cultivated varieties have been selected.”

“Millions of people cook and eat the tender young pads of several species of prickly pear. Besides being more tender, immature pads have less oxalic acid, which could be toxic in large amounts. Nopales (the edible species of prickly pear and the harvested whole pads of the same) are very nutritious. Nopalitos (small pads that are cut into bite-size pieces) are mucilaginous like okra, and good for thickening broths. The mucilage also helps control blood-sugar levels associated with adult-onset diabetes. Diabetes is a common affliction among native Americans who adopt Western high-fat, low-fiber diets. There is also clinical evidence that nopales reduce blood cholesterol.”

Indian fig flowersCactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) has been used in traditional folk medicine because of its role in treating a number of diseases and conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemic, rheumatic pain, gastric mucosa diseases and asthma, in many countries over the world. (Source) According to WebMD, “Prickly pear cactus is used for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). It is also used to fight viral infections.”

According to the journal Molecules : “In the last decade, compelling evidence for the nutritional and health benefit potential of this cactus has been provided by academic scientists and private companies. Notably, its rich composition in polyphenols, vitamins, polyunsaturated fatty acids and amino acids has been highlighted through the use of a large panel of extraction methods. The identified natural cactus compounds and derivatives were shown to be endowed with biologically relevant activities including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, hypoglycemic, antimicrobial and neuroprotective properties.”

This article goes into detail of uses of various parts of the plant.

I have this plant in my back yard. It started as a single potted plant given to me by a friend. It is now five separate plants six to eight feet high and two potted plants about three feet high.

A green lynx spider may be lurking in your yard

Spring flowers bring out the pollinators and their predators. I found one of those predators, a green lynx spider, lurking in the flower of a prickly pear cactus. Can you see the spider in the middle of the flower in the photo below?


 Rather than build a web to catch prey as some other spiders do, the green lynx spider lurks on foliage to catch prey. It pounces cat-like, hence its name “lynx.” Its color helps camouflage the spider. This is a fairly large spider; the body of a female can be nearly an inch long. The legs sport spiky hairs. This spider is big enough to tackle bees and butterflies.

As with most spiders, the green lynx spider paralyzes its prey with venom which also starts the digestion process. Spiders don’t have teeth, so the venom serves to liquify the prey so that the spider can suck up the juices.

In September and October, the female spider will build a silk sac and lay up to 600 eggs. She guards that sac and new hatchlings ferociously until after their first molt.

The green lynx spider is generally harmless to humans. So, if you have flowering prickly pear cactus in your yard, go out a take a close look in the flowers and on the pads. Maybe you will see a lurking “lynx.”

See more photos of the green lynx spider at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum digital library here.


Biofuel from Prickly Pear Cactus

Universidad Mayor in Santiago, Chile is experimenting with the use of plantation-grown prickly pear cactus for use as biofuel. They intend to establish plantations in the Atacama desert, a place that averages 0.004 inches of rain a year, mainly as fog from the Pacific Ocean.

Reporter Anatoly Kurmanaev of the Santiago Times sets the scene:

The driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, wouldn’t seem an auspicious place for biofuel production.

Biotechnology experts, however, may have found a way to turn one of the desert’s only available plants, the cactus, into energy.

A US$500,000 pilot project in the Río Jorquera Valley in the Copiapó province aims to reduce Nopal cactus stems to high-energy dry briquettes that can be burned in coal-fired thermoelectric plants.

The five-acre experimental plantation will produce sufficient scientific data on cactus biomass production in arid conditions by the end of 2013, and will then begin supplying fuel to a small-scale onsite power station.

The project’s leader, Prof. Alexis Vega of Universidad Mayor’s Biotechnology Institute in Santiago, believes a pilot-scale plantation of 420 acres will be able to sustain 1.5 megawatts per hour (MW/h) of electricity generation.

At an estimated cost of US$112 per MW/h, cactus biofuel is competitive with fossil fuels at current global prices and is much cheaper than other sources of alternative energy in the region such as wind or solar.

“This is an opportunity to diversify the local economy by utilizing marginal soil—land which has little water and few agricultural alternatives,” said Vega.

The researchers hope to develop the plantation to a level where they can begin supplying large electrical utilities in northern Chile.

One of the advantages of the cactus plantations is their proximity to energy-hungry mining operations. Utilizing locally available sources of energy would reduce the need for costly energy shipments from the south, Vega explained.

“Four years ago, when we approached the big power distributors they told us no. Now the moment has arrived—they are keen to participate.”

A law passed in 2010 binds Chile to generate 10 percent of its electricity from renewable, non-conventional sources by 2024.

At present the figure stands at around five percent, and Vega believes the government’s support for alternative energy puts the nation well on course to meeting the target.

Apart from the environmental benefits, researchers believe the scheme also holds substantial economic potential.

Southern Atacama’s traditional crop has been the table grape, the profitability of which has fallen steadily in recent years due to growing competition from Peru and Argentina.

As cactuses require at most a third of the water used by a grape plantation of the same area, there are large potential savings for farmers, as well as stable year-round jobs.

“For the small declining indigenous communities of northern Chile this is a real development opportunity,” said Vega. “These people can stay on the land, produce fuel for their own use, and sell the surplus, instead of migrating to the cities where they will remain poor.”

According to a report from Universidad Mayor, the cactus can be used in two ways: 1) anaerobic bio-digestion can produce methane for use as a feedstock for electrical generation, much as we harvest methane from landfills here in Tucson; or 2) the prickly pear pads can be dehydrated using solar energy, then pelleted and used as a co-combustion fuel in coal-fired plants. The cactus plantations will have to be irrigated and fertilized to allow a harvest every six months. An added benefit, if the project proves feasible, is that this biofuel is produced from a non-food crop and will provide year-round jobs rather than seasonal employment common to most crops. The goal of the project is to produce at least the equivalent of 40 tons dry matter per hectare per year which they deem competitive with other biofuels.

Do not mess with Javelinas

JavelinaJavelinas, or collared peccaries, are a common sight in Tucson neighborhoods. They travel in herds and have large canine teeth which can do much damage to you. Javelinas have poor eyesight but good hearing and a keen sense of smell. Because of the poor eyesight, it is possible to get quite close to a wild javelina unnoticed, but if the wind shifts you may become the center of attention. A javelina may attack if it feels cornered. Clacking teeth is an alarm call and a warning. If you live in the foothills and attract javelinas to your yard, by providing water and forage, you may also attract their predators including mountain lions.

Javelina are herbivores. Their diet consists mainly of prickly pear cactus. They eat spines and all. Javelinas also eat other vegetable matter including fruit, seeds, roots, and also potted plants in your yard. Javelina kidneys concentrate nitrogen wastes more efficiently than other animals so there is less water loss. The kidneys also filter out oxalic acid found in the cactus. (For more on that see Can you get potable water from a cactus.)


Why does an herbivore have such big canine teeth? These big teeth serve three purposes. The most obvious is defense. These large canine teeth can inflict serious injury. The large teeth also are used to shred cactus pads. Lastly, the canine teeth help stabilize the jaw when the javelin is trying to crunch something very hard like a mesquite bean.

 Javelinas stand about two feet tall and three feet long. Adults weigh 40- to 50 pounds. They are very social animals and travel in herds, usually with 10- to 15 members, but some herds with over 50 individuals have been seen. They keep track of herd members through smell. Javelinas have a scent gland above their tails and rub each other to transmit the family odor. They also mark their territories. Each herd is very territorial and will defend against other herds. Territory size depends on forage opportunities, but in the Tucson Mountains it is estimated to be about 250 acres.


Javelinas are active at night during the summer, but in cooler seasons they may be about in the daytime. Mating may occur throughout the year and the newborns, called “reds”because of their color, are able to travel with the herd just a few hours after birth. They nurse for six to eight weeks.

Although javelinas look like pigs, they are not related. They belong to different families, Tayassuidae and Suidae respectively. Javelinas evolved in South America. Their current range extends from Arizona to Argentina and the range is expanding northward. According to current classification, the two belong to the same superfamily, but diverged during the Oligocene. The similar appearance may be due to convergent evolution.