Nopal cactus, also called prickly pear, is a familiar sight on roadsides and fields across much of the United States. This family of pad-forming cacti has been used in many ways by different cultures since ancient times. It continues to be an important plant for food, animal forage, medicine and even as an additive to harden plaster. Nopal has recently gained popularity in the United States for its health benefits.
The word "nopal" means cactus in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It has been an important food source for indigenous peoples of arid regions past and present. The nopal plays an important part in the mythology of the Aztec civilization and is incorporated in the symbol on the Mexican flag. Nopal was grown commercially as a host crop for the tiny cochineal beetle, which was the world’s primary source of colorfast, vivid red dye up until the 1800s.
There are many varieties of nopal cactus, ranging from Southern Mexico to Canada. Their familiar rounded pads and bushy habit make them easy to identify. There are many species with several variations in pad shape size and color. Some varieties are prized for large juicy fruits, and others for their small spines and thick pads. However, all types of nopal cactus pads and fruit are edible.
The pads of the nopal are flayed open and cut into strips that are pickled, sautéed with onions, or blended into a refreshing drink. Consumer reports show that nopal is the fifth most consumed vegetable in Mexico, by weight. The sweet, red fruits, called tuna, taste a lot like strawberries and are used to make jelly and syrup. The raw, inner pads are traditionally used to make an effective drawing poultice for wounds.
Nopal pads are high in minerals and vitamins. Juice made from the inner pads is anti-inflammatory and is used by traditional healers in Mexico to control diabetes, urinary tract infections and relieve inflammation. According to a study conducted by researchers from the Department of Internal Medicine, Hospital de Especialidades del Centro Médico La Raza, and Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social, small doses of nopal extract significantly decreased levels of serum glucose and serum insulin in non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus patients. The specific mechanism by which nopal works is not known, but further clinical trials are underway. The fresh or dried fruit is very high in vitamin C, and is used by traditional healers to strengthen capillaries.
Handle fresh nopal pads carefully because even so called "thornless" types of nopal have tiny spines hidden on the pads. Sometimes the spines are removed by holding pads over a flame until the thorns have softened and can be scraped away, however this reduces shelf life. The fruits also have tiny glass like spines, and must be handed with tongs or gloves. They are usually cut open lengthwise, so that the inner juice and pulp can be safely scraped out with a spoon.