Nopal cactus is a native cactus and is commonly identified as prickly pear cactus. It grows in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Considered a nuisance by many homeowners, the Nopal cactus grows wild and will pop up just about anywhere. The cactus is edible and has been used as a source of food and medicine since the prehistoric era.
Nopal cactus grows round pads that are flat and have thorns. Green in color, the pads grow one on top of the other. The Spanish term for these pads is nopales. When left to grow, the cactus grows to 15 feet tall. Careful handling of the cactus is important as the outside of the plant has sharp spines or thorns in several places.
Fruit and Flower Identification
Fruit grows on Nopal cactus in a small walnut shape. The fruit grows in the early spring and shows a variety of colors ranging from red to yellow to brown. Flowers bloom on the end of the fruit and when the bloom dies in late spring, the fruit is ready to eat. White-skinned varieties of Nopal cactus are favored among Mexico residents while the juiciest and sweetest fruit has a dark red or purple color.
Special techniques to remove the thorns or spines enable the user to eat the cactus either fresh or cut into strips and used in cooking. Eat Nopal cactus raw, fried, pickled or added to casseroles. Additionally, use cactus in jams, jellies and candy.
Nopal cactus is believed has medicinal value as well. The sap, or water, inside the pads are applied to burns or cuts to aid in healing. Pureeing the young pads and consuming is said to be a natural laxative. Eating the plant might aid in controlling blood sugar for diabetics too, several clinical studies have been conducted.
Nopal cactus is available in health food stores in dehydrated or powder form. Taken daily, it aids in the treatment of stomach ulcers and is used as an antioxidant. The popularity of Nopal cactus has now spread to other countries.