Buy Prickly Pear Cactus Opuntia For Diabetes, Digestion, and Other Benefits

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Prickly Pear Cactus

Opuntia polycantha

Cactaceae (cactus family)

The genus name of this spiky plant, Opuntia, was given in respect for the ancient city of Opus or Locris, Greece. Polycanthos, the species name, in effect means "many corners," perhaps referring to the structure of this cactus, whose jointed series of flat pads grow at angles to one another. The common name prickly pear refers to the pear-like fruits, often sold in fruit stalls and vegetable markets across the country. To add further confusion, the tasty fruits are commonly called "tunas" in the Southwest, or "tuna pears"... so much for names!

The large, bristly Opuntia genus embraces perhaps three hundred species of prostrate to treelike, mostly jointed cacti, found from Massachusetts and British Columbia to the Straits of Magellan. These mostly awkward and coarse plants, also called cholla cacti, have formidable spines and showy flowers and fruits. I have encountered ~great colonies of opuntia in full, glorious bloom on islands of the Norwalk Archipelago in Long Island Sound, where they over-winter well and welcome the seabirds back to their rookeries with their large yellow spring blossoms. Their ability to withstand unfavorable growing conditions make them useful ornamentals, especially in rock gardens, sandy banks, and the medicine wheel garden.

0. ficus-indica, the Indian fig or tuna, is widely grown for its abundant edible pads and fruits. Centuries ago, the Spanish adopted the Taino Indian word tuna for this plant's small red fruits, long a favored food in tropical America. The teddy bear cactus, 0. bigelovii, grows three to eight feet tall in the West and produces pale yellow flowers in spring. The flapjack cactus, 0. chlorotica, grows up to six feet tall with long spines and yellow flowers. The beaver-tail or rose tuna, 0. basilaris, has yellow- to rose-colored blossoms. There are so many fascinating species of cholla, hedgehog, and prickly pear to consider for the xeriscape garden.

The Aztec City of Tenochtitlan, "place of the prickly pear cactus," was founded in A.D. 1345, later becoming Mexico City. Its symbol of the prickly pear is on the heart of the Mexican coat of arms, and most Mexican coins. This cactus is ubiquitous in the desert Southwest and across the Mexican countryside.

The Aztec dye cochineal is made from the female insects found on the prickly pear cactus, and results in beautiful shades of purple, red, and magenta.

Traditional uses:

Throughout the Indian pueblos, both the pads and the sweet, delicious fruits of the prickly pear and many other native cacti were and continue to be eaten. The Zuni made a fine red dye from the prickly pear fruits and the bee plant, dried and ground together. The pads and fruits are best gathered with sharp shovels and gloved hands; then the spines may be roasted or burned off. The peeled pads are used in the mouth to ease inflamed gums and mouth sores, and can be applied as poultices to tumors and skin injuries. The dried flowers are also used in poultices, and are applied to skin as anti-inflammatory treatments. These dried-flower poultices can improve hair and scalp conditions as well. The mucilaginous juice is an anti-inflammatory diuretic, and the fruits are often mixed with cornmeal in various dishes. Native people also use the juice, pads, and fruits of the prickly pear to treat diabetes.

Modern uses:

Today there is a cultivated spineless prickly pear cactus grown and sold for the gourmet markets, especially in the Southwest, where these pads and fruits are frequent ingredients in regional foods. Pickled opuntia pads provide the nopales enjoyed in Mexican cuisine. Often available in supermarkets, the rosy red tuna pears are delicious raw or cooked into various sweet dishes and jellies. The mucilaginous exudations from the cactus pads are used directly on the skin to ease rashes and many skin problems.


Be careful to avoid cactus spines. Handle these cacti with great care, wearing thick garden gloves; you can make a corset of rolled newspaper to wrap around the plants when handling them.

Growth needs and propagation:

Prickly pears will grow well in sandy, loamy soil in full sun. They may be easily propagated from the joints (from which they readily grow roots in good soil), and grow just as readily from seeds They grow as far north as Connecticut and Massachusetts Prickly pear colonies are relatively slow-growing and don't usually take over a large area. Many gardeners want them, so you may often be cutting and giving away pads to root new plants. Perhaps your herbal garden will become a friendship garden as you share your plants with others.


Prickly pears grow well with yucca, yarrow, Oregon grape holly, and poke. They will also make good companions for many other plants in the garden, but they do not like to be crowded and overshadowed. Hummingbirds love the opuntia blossoms.

Prickly pear grew so thick that in summer, when you picked the fruit, it was only four steps from one bush to the next.
- Maria Chona, Papago medicine woman, 1930

Where can I buy Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia)? has a wide selection of Prickly Pear Cactus products, including capsules, powder, creams and salves.

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