What Is a Nopal Cactus?

Overview

The nopal cactus, also known as the opuntia cactus or prickly pear cactus, is a common plant in Mexico and is also grown around the world, particularly in hot, arid regions. The cactus is an important cash crop that has many uses. It is cultivated commercially for its pad-like leaves and fruit, both of which are edible.

Features of the Plant

Nopal is a large cactus made up of woody stems and large, flat, teardrop-shaped pads. The pads are succulent, bright green and have a waxy feel. They are covered with small clusters of sharp, protective spines, called glochids. Nopal cactus can grow to 10 feet tall. Each pad of the cactus will sprout one to three other pads. The plant also flowers and produces a sweet, edible fruit.

History of the Cactus

Nopal cactus was an essential source of food for ancient Mexican cultures, which used the plant for thousands of years. Nopal was used as a food item, a source of fibers and as a medicinal herb. Later, during and after the Spanish colonial period, nopal was an important forage crop for imported cattle. The plant is so ingrained in the identity of Mexican culture that it even appears on the national flag of Mexico.

Where It Grows

Nopal cactus is native to Mexico. It is grown throughout the country, but prefers the arid, hot climate of central Mexico. Most nopal varieties prefer lower altitudes under 500 feet and generally do not require a lot of care to cultivate. Nopal was eventually grown in all of the Americas, from Canada to Argentina. Today, it is grown commercially primarily in Mexico, northern Africa, Israel and southern Europe.

Nopalitos

The pads of the nopal cactus, called nopalitos, are used as food. The spines are first removed and the remaining pads are sliced or cubed. They can be eaten raw, sauteed, fried or incorporated into other dishes such as soups, stews or salads. Nopalitos can also be pickled. Nopal is also commonly used as cattle fodder. The plant also has industrial applications to make alcohol, soap, pigments and pectin.

Nopal Fruit

The oblong fruit of the nopal cactus is commonly called "prickly pear" in English and "tuna" in Spanish. The color of the fruit ranges from orange to pink to deep red. Each fruit is dotted with spiny glochids. Careful removal of these will allow the skin to be peeled, revealing a soft, sweet flesh with a melon-like flavor and many small, black seeds. The flesh can be eaten fresh or cooked, and can also be used to make jellies and jams, fruit paste, salads and beverages.

Keywords: nopal cactus plant, prickly pear cactus, what is a nopalito?

About this Author

Located in Jacksonville, Fla, Frank Whittemore has been a writer and content strategist for over 15 years, providing corporate communications services to Fortune 500 companies. Whittemore writes on topics that stem from his fascination with nature, the environment, science, medicine and technology.