Prickly Pear

October 21, 2014

Prickly pears are delicious the year-round–as fruits (tuna) and paddles (nopales).



Opuntia ficus-indica

Native range: Long raised for its fruit (tuna in Spanish) and fleshy pads (nopal), the prickly pear cactus, O. ficus-indica, is closely related to wild prickly pears of south and central Mexico, where it was first domesticated.

Invasive range: Given the species’ widespread impact, we include the invasive range in North America and beyond.
North America: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. In North America, this prickly pear is introduced but is not considered widely invasive
Worldwide: Invasive populations can be found in China, Taiwan, Yemen, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Réunion, Somalia, Galapagos Islands, and Australia.

Habitat: Common in disturbed sites, semiarid habitats, coastal dunes, and ledges.

Description: Succulent stems are flat, oval, and segmented. Orange flowers about two inches in diameter. Purple fruits are the size and shape of a fig. Can reach up to 6 feet in height.

As with so many invasive plants: it’s complicated. Opuntia ficus-indica is the most widespread cactus, with the deepest history of domestication. A good crop for dry areas, as it efficiently converts even a little water into biomass, the prickly pear is as vital to the Mexican economy as corn and tequila agave.

DNA analysis has established that this domestic, and invasive, cactus was bred from wild species native to Mexico. It soon spread through the Aztec empire and beyond–cochineal dye, made from a scale insect that lives on cultivated Opuntia was used in Aztec tribute rolls.

After Columbus, ships carried the edible pads, or nopales, to prevent scurvy and to feed the dye insect, distributing the cactus to much of the rest of the world. It became naturalized in the Mediterranean, and many now consider the New World cactus a native. But through much of the Mediterranean, and elsewhere along the old trade routes, it is also considered a pest–it spreads rapidly beyond the zones where it was originally cultivated.

By the early 20th century, cattle ranchers of the Southwest US realized that O. ficus-indica could serve both as feed source and boundary fence. Prickly pears have been used for more than a century to feed the herds; the spines can be burned off to reduce mouth injury. The cactus pads, on which the animals graze, are low in dry matter and crude protein, but useful as a supplement during drought. In addition to food value, the moisture content virtually eliminates the need to water cattle. In Namibia, prickly pears serve as a drought-resistant fodder plant.

In Mexico, Opuntia ficus-indica is cultivated to serve as host plant for the scale insects that produce cochineal dye. The red and purple dye, used by the Aztec and Maya, became one of Mexico’s most valued exports after silver. By the 17th century, it was traded as far off as India, with prices quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges. The demand for cochineal crashed with the appearance of artificial dyes in Europe in the 19th century.

The most valuable product of O. ficus-indica today is the large, sweet fruit, called tuna in Spanish. It has been introduced and is now grown commercially beyond Mexico’s borders, in Malta, Spain, Italy, Greece, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel, Chile, Brazil, Turkey, and Ethiopia.

This fruit, rich in vitamin C, was one of the early cures for scurvy. Typically eaten without the thick outer skin, it tastes like juicy, very sweet watermelon. The bright red-and-purple or white-and-yellow flesh contains many tiny hard seeds, usually swallowed. Native Mexicans ground the seeds for flour, and many North Africans press them for oil. Jams and jellies that resemble strawberries and figs in color and flavor are made from the pulp and juice.

Mexicans have used Opuntia for thousands of years to make an alcoholic drink called colonche. In Sicily, a prickly pear-flavored liqueur called Ficodi is produced. In Malta, a liqueur called Bajtra (the Maltese name for prickly pear) is made from the fruit, which can be found growing wild in most fields.

The fruit was imported from Mexico and the Mediterranean to the United States in the early 20th century by Italian and Greek immigrants. It lost popularity in the ’50s, but regained it in the ’90s, thanks to Mexican immigrants.

Mexican and other Southwestern residents eat the young cactus pads as well, usually picked before the spines harden. Skinned or unskinned, sliced into strips, fried with eggs and jalapeños, and served as a breakfast treat, they have a texture and flavor like string beans.


The Traditional Way
Southwest tribal women picked the fruits early in the morning while the glochids, or spines, were still softened by dew. Rubbing the large berries in sand removed the spines.

21st-century Style
Green Deane of recommends spraying fruits and pads with water to reduce the number of spines. Pick the fruit with heavy leather gloves, then wash them again and or burn the remaining spines with a butane torch or candle flame.

The soft red fruit can be eaten raw or cooked. The seeds are hard and can be consumed, removed, or ground into flour.

The fleshy pads, or nopales, can be eaten raw or cooked. Wearing heavy gloves, trim off the edge of the leaf, and remove the bumps and thorns with a small knife or a vegetable peeler. Rinse with cold water to remove spines and wash off stick fluid. Use right away or pat dry, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate up to two days. Read more about nopales preparation here.

How to prepare prickly pear fruit the Moroccan way.


Breakfast Nopales
Adapted from

2 eggs
2 tbsp. of chopped green onions
2/3 cups of cooked nopales
vegetable oil
salt to taste

Remove spines from the nopales, trim off the edges and rinse. Cut the paddles into small strips. Bring a pot of water (approximately 4 quarts) to a boil, add about 2 tbs of salt. Add the no pales and let boil for about 15 to 20 minutes, which will remove much of the sap from the paddles. Rinse and pat dry or strain.

Heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat.

Add chopped green onions and stir for about one minute.

Add nopales and cook for about 1 or 2 minutes.

Add eggs and cook until they become firm but not dry, stirring as needed.

Add salt to taste.

Serve as is, on bread, or in tacos.

Prickly Pear Jam
Chef Tess provides a nice tutorial on preparing prickly pear fruits for jam here.

    Leave a Comment



    Wild Pig

    Did the domestic ancestors of today’s feral pigs streak off De Soto’s ship into the Florida scrub of their own accord in 1539? Or did they have to be urged to go find something to eat? All you need to…

      EAT ME!

      Garden Snail

      Deliberately or accidentally, by the movement of plants and by hobbyists who collect snails, humans have spread the garden snail to temperate and subtropical zones around the world.

        EAT ME!

        Garlic Mustard

          Alliaria petiolata Native range: Europe, Asia, Northwest Africa Invasive range: Much of the Lower 48, Alaska, and Canada. (See map.) Habitat: Moist, shaded soil of floodplains, forests, roadsides, edges of woods, and forest openings. Often dominant in disturbed areas. Description: Biennial herb. First-year plant has a rosette of green leaves close to the ground. [...]

          EAT ME!
          nopales con huevo

          Prickly Pear

          Fall is here, and the “cactus fig” is in season. Time to plate-up another widespread invader.

            EAT ME!
            Screen Shot 2012-11-18 at 8.02.21 AM

            Sow Thistle

            It’s spring and time to weed. Sow thistle is a delicious invader found throughout the continent.

              EAT ME!



              Asian Shore Crab

              The first sighting of the Asian shore crab in the United States was at Townsend Inlet, Cape May County, New Jersey, in 1988. Though the source is unknown . . .

                EAT ME!


                The common periwinkle, which first appeared in New England in the 1860s, is now found along the coast wherever there’s hard substrate–rocks, riprap, broken concrete, or docks–from Labrador to . . .

                  EAT ME!
                  Pterois volitans


                  Some say it started in 1992 in Miami when Hurricane Andrew smashed an aquarium tank. Don’t blame the weather, others say; in the mid-nineties, disappointed yet softhearted hobbyists…

                    EAT ME!
                    chuka wakame


                      Undaria pinnatifida Native range: Japan Sea Invasive range: Southern California, San Francisco Bay, New Zealand, Australia, Europe, Argentina Habitat: Opportunistic seaweed, can be found on hard substrates including rocky reefs, pylons, buoys, boat hulls, and abalone and bivalve shells. Description: Golden brown seaweed, growing up to nine feet. Forms thick canopy. Reproductive sporophyll in [...]

                      EAT ME!

                      Green Crab

                      Since the green crab was first recorded off southern Massachusetts in 1817, it has been hard to ignore. A few minutes of rock-flipping in Maine can turn up dozens of them, brandishing their claws as they retreat…

                        EAT ME!


                        Armored Catfish Meatballs (1)

                        Armored Catfish

                        The armored catfish is abundant and destructive in Florida, Texas, and Mexico. Cast your nets for these flavorful natives of the Amazon. Scientific name: Two types have become established in North America: armadillo del rio, Hypostomus plecostomus, and sailfin catfishes in genus Pterygoplichthys Native range: Amazon River Basin Invasive range: Texas, Florida, and Hawaii; also [...]

                          EAT ME!
                          Picture 1

                          Common Carp

                          For a bottom-feeder, what is the good life? The common carp isn’t very demanding: any body of water that’s sluggish and murky will do. If the water is clean, and you’ve got corn for bait, try one of these recipes.

                            EAT ME!


                              Nasturtium officianale Native Range: Northern Africa, Europe, temperate Asia, and India Invasive Range: In USA: all lower 48 states, except North Dakota. Found in Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Also southern Canada, Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Australasia, and parts of tropical Asia. Habitat: Common along stream margins, ditches, and other areas with [...]

                              EAT ME!


                                There are numerous invasive crayfish. We include details for the red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) and the rusty crayfish (Orenectes rusticus). The same recipes can be used for both species–and many other invasive crayfish. Red Swamp Crayfish Native range: Known as Louisiana crayfish, crawdad, and mudbug, Procambarus clarkii is native to the south central [...]

                                EAT ME!


                                Nutria, also known as coypu and river rat, is native to temperate and subtropical South America. It has been introduced to Europe, Asia, and Africa, mainly for fur farming. These voracious. . .

                                  EAT ME!

                                  Field Notes

                                  Screen Shot 2021-05-17 at 8.52.31 AM

                                  National Invasive Species Awareness Week

                                  Join the Wikipedia Edit-a-thon on May 20, between 11 am and 3 pm EDT. Learn to edit Wikipedia and help improve articles about invasive species. Register here.

                                    EAT ME!
                                    Screen Shot 2021-04-06 at 10.39.51 AM

                                    Kudzu in Architecture, Cuisine, and Culture

                                    Before it took over Southern landscapes, the invasive vine was once called the “savior of the South.” Artists, designers, and chefs are trying to render it useful. Read about the role of kudzu in architecture, cuisine, and culture in Southerly.

                                      EAT ME!

                                      A Reporter Invites Dandelions to Lunch

                                      On the 400th anniversary of dandelions’ arrival in America with European colonists, the once-esteemed weed can be found almost everywhere — except on our plates. Reporter Gene Tempest asks why Americans soured on the dandelion and whether–like many medicinal or historical foods–it was ever good eating. She sets out to prepare a light dandelion lunch [...]

                                        EAT ME!
                                        Screen Shot 2020-10-18 at 9.08.24 AM

                                        Murder Hornet Eludes Washington State Scientists

                                        Researchers in Washington State have lost track of an Asian giant hornet they were following — a stinging setback in the pursuit to eradicate an invasive species that threatens to decimate North American bee populations. Listen on NPR and read about hornet cuisine in Japan.

                                          EAT ME!
                                          Screen Shot 2020-10-06 at 1.51.22 PM

                                          When Invasive Species Become the Meal

                                          Invasivore campaigns are part of a broader movement to reduce, if not eradicate, invasive species. Educational websites such as Eat the Invaders, founded in 2011 by Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, and slogans like “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em” frame what might otherwise be merely an epicurean decision [...]

                                            EAT ME!

                                            It’s the frontier. The woods are this mysterious area where things grow. You don’t have to tend to it, you don’t have to plant it, you just have to find it.

                                            Chef Matt Lightner in The New York Times

                                            Previous post:

                                            Next post: