Opuntia ficus-indica

The Prickly Pear

by Virginia Hayes

Humans have been eating parts of this plant for about 12,000
years and began cultivating it about 9,000 years ago. It has been
moved around the world in so many directions, its exact origins are
somewhat obscure. Most surely it originated somewhere in Mexico,
but it diffused throughout South America and Columbus surely took
it home with him on his first visit. It spread quickly from the
Caribbean to the Mediterranean in the 1400s to 1500s. It is the
most economically important cactus and is known as the prickly
pear, or Opuntia ficus-indica.

The name prickly pear refers to the fruits (also known as tunas
in Spanish-speaking cultures), which are the main edible crop. They
are roughly the size of a pear, but don’t have the same sinuous
curves. Most will be yellow to red or purplish-red when ripe, but
nearly white, green, or even brown fruits are also known. The flesh
may be any shade as well, but most available here are red or purple
inside. Sweet and juicy, they are full of tiny crunchy seeds. Eat
them raw with or without a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, make
them into jam, or even a gummy candy or into milkshakes. Before
eating, scrape off the few spines and prickles on their skin with a
knife or turn fruits over a flame to char them.

The fruits are only part of the story, though. Young
pads — actually flattened stems known as nopales — are eaten raw or
stirred into stews, egg dishes, or boiled quickly to make a salad
with onions, cilantro, and chiles. Livestock have been fed on
prickly pear pads for centuries. Luther Burbank worked for years to
perfect a truly spineless variety just for this purpose. The plant
is easily propagated by rooting pads and one of the other uses for
this ancient crop is as a living fence. There are some reputed
medicinal uses for the sap: treating burns, wounds, and blood sugar
imbalances; as a mosquito retardant; to stiffen cloth; as an
additive for soaps, candles, whitewash, and mortar. How’s that for
an all-purpose plant?

February Tips

  1. Cut back fuchsias: In-ground plants can be cut back by half,
    and potted ones even more. Feed with a balanced organic fertilizer
    and stand back.
  2. Shy rains and low humidity mean regular irrigation is still
    needed. Monitor soil moisture and water as necessary.
  3. Check mulch levels and renew to a depth of 4-6 inches.
  4. Plant greens for a quick harvest: Arugula, beet greens, leaf
    lettuces, spinach, and cress are all ready to start picking in just
    20-45 days.

Virginia Hayesvahayes@lotusland.org, curator of Ganna Walska
Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to
Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send
email to


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