A spiny prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) doesn't look like it could be an important food item for people. However, prickly pears were staple foods for Nahuans in Mexico, who called them nopals, and Native American peoples in the United States. When the Spanish came to Mexico in the 1500s, they adopted the Aztec word nopal for prickly pear cactuses in general. About 200 kinds of prickly pears grow from Canada to Argentina, with 34 species growing north of Mexico.
The Nahuans ate prickly pear pads, called nopales or nopalitos, green or cooked, and they used the oval red, white or yellow fruits, called tunas, fresh and in beverages. The cochineal nopal (Nopalea cochinellifera), besides being human food, was used to raise the cochineal insect, prized for the red dye it produces. This plant lives in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 through 11. Opuntias were brought to Spain shortly after Christopher Columbus' first voyage and spread throughout the Mediterranean area, becoming important food items there as well, with many people assuming them to be native. Now nopal is grown worldwide for food and as forage for livestock.
Nahuan Nopal Species
Several large-growing prickly pears can reach 15 feet high. They were major Nahuan nopal food sources and are now used for landscaping and food purposes far outside their original ranges. One of the more famous of the nopal cactuses is Indian fig (Opuntia ficus-indica). Spanish padres brought the plants to the American Southwest as they were building their mission chains. Luther Burbank developed relatively spineless hybrids of Indian fig and Mexican prickly pear (Opuntia tuna) at his laboratory in California for agricultural use. The cardon nopal (Opuntia streptacantha) has intense red, aromatic fruits. These species are hardy in USDA zones 9 through 11.
Throughout the American Southwest, the young tender pads of prickly pears, both cultivated and wild, are used for food today. In Arizona, people collect the bright purple-red tunas of Engelmann's prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii) for syrup, drinks, preserves and jellies. Prehistoric native peoples of Texas used fruits of this same species as an important part of their diet when it was ripe in midsummer. It grows in USDA zones 8 through 11. Native Americans used plains prickly pear (Opuntia polyacantha) fruits raw, dried or cooked. It is hardy in USDA zones 3 through 11.
If you want to grow your own cacti for harvesting nopalitos, which are cooked young pads, use tall species and have them do dual duty as a barrier or hedge in your yard. If you root single pads of Indian fig, plants begin bearing after four or five years and are fully grown after seven to 10 years. An essential part of preparation is removing spines and glochids, which are small fine spines. Peel fruits and pads and wash them well under running water or burn off the spines. Nopalitos contribute a mucilaginous substance to stews and chilis similar to that of okra. Nopal is grown throughout North America in rock gardens, xeriscape gardens and succulent gardens, as well as being used as container plants.