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prickly pear 

Prickly Pear fruit rivals the wild berries of the Northwest in their sheer pervasiveness and abundance. The tender, sweet fleshy buds have a unique and marvelous flavor. The fruits are so delicious that early Spanish explorers sent samples back to Europe where they quickly caught on and remain popular to this day, especially in Italy.

Ingredients: fresh Prickly Pear juice, sugar, lemon, pectin

Prickly pear cactus represent about a dozen species of the Opuntia genus (Family Cactaceae) in the North American deserts. All have flat, fleshy pads that look like large leaves. The pads are actually modified branches or stems that serve several functions -- water storage, photosynthesis and flower production. Chollas are also members of the Opuntia genus but have cylindrical, jointed stems rather than flat pads.

Like other cactus, most prickly pears and chollas have large spines -- actually modified leaves -- growing from tubercles -- small, wart-like projections -- on their stems. But members of the Opuntia genus are unique because of their clusters of fine, tiny, barbed spines called glochids. Found just above the cluster of regular spines, glochids are yellow or red in color and detach easily from the pads. Glochids are often difficult to see and more difficult to remove, once lodged in the skin.

The fruits of most prickly pears are edible and sold in stores under the name "tuna." Prickly pear branches (the pads) are also cooked and eaten as a vegetable. They, too, are sold in stores under the name "Nopalito." Because of the glochids, great care is required when harvesting or preparing prickly pear cactus. Both fruits and pads of the prickly pear cactus are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fibers that may help keep blood sugar stable. 

Prickly Pear Nutritional Information

Serving Size: 149g
Amount Per Serving


Calories 61
Calories from Fat 6


% Daily Value*

Total Fat 1


Cholesterol 0mg


Sodium 7mg


Total Carbohydrate 14g


Dietary Fiber 5g




Protein 1g


Vitamin A 1%

Vitamin C 35%

Calcium 8%

Iron 2%

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

Source: PMA's Labeling Facts


Prickly Pears are low in Saturated Fat, and very low in Cholesterol and Sodium. They're also a good source of Calcium and Potassium, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin C and Magnesium.


Range & Habitat

Prickly pear cactus are found in all of the deserts of the American Southwest, with different species having adapted to different locale and elevation ranges. Most require course, well-drained soil in dry, rocky flats or slopes. But some prefer mountain pinyon/juniper forests, while others require steep, rocky slopes in mountain foothills.

Most prickly pear cactus have yellow, red or purple flowers, even among the same species. They vary in height from less than a foot (Plains, Hedgehog, Tuberous) to 6 or 7 feet (Texas, Santa Rita, Pancake). Pads can vary in width, length, shape and color. The Beavertail, Santa Rita and Blind Pear are regarded as spineless, but all have glochids.

In addition to the North American native prickly pear cactus listed below, there are many varieties, non-native imports and hybrids, so identification can often be difficult. Information on the 15 species below is based on wild, non-cultivated samples.

There has been medical interest in the Prickly Pear plant. Some studies have shown that the pectin contained in the Prickly Pear pulp lowers levels of "bad" cholesterol while leaving "good" cholesterol levels unchanged. Another study found that the fibrous pectin in the fruit may lowers diabetics' need for insulin. Both fruits and pads of the prickly pear cactus are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fibers that help keep blood sugar stable. There are on going studies and at this point there are no proven results on humans. You can make your own study and see if works for you, which is the only test that really counts.

The prickly pear fruit normally ripens and is ready for harvest during the late summer and early fall months. When gathering the fruit, wear leather or rubber gloves to avoid contact with the cactus needles. They are a nuisance, especially the tiny soft-appearing barbs of glochids on the fruit itself. The glochids are very difficult to remove if you get them in your skin. A long-handled tong can also be used to pick the fruit from the cactus. Once you have harvested the fruit, you will need to remove the glochids by passing the fruit through an open flame or shaking the fruit in a bag of hot coals. The glochids can also be removed by cutting them away with a knife or peeling off the skin. Once the fruit is removed from the cactus, it will rapidly lose nutritional value and may ferment, so try to consume or process soon after harvesting.

Different varieties of cactus was used for food and medicinal purposes by Native Americans for thousands of years. The Cahuilla Indians spent the cooler months gathering wanted plants. They harvested the fruit of the Beavertail Cactus for its sweetness. The fruit was cooked in a pit with hot stones for at least 12 hours, and the large seeds were ground into a mush. When the flesh pads were young, they were cut into small pieces, boiled and served as greens.

BEARDED PRICKLY PEAR   Opuntia strigil

Desert: Chihuahuan Desert
Height: Up to 3 feet
Pads: Small, oblong, yellow-green with short, colored spines
Flowers: Cream-color
Fruit: Small, bright red
Elevation: 3,000-4,500 feet

BEAVERTAIL CACTUS    Opuntia basilaris

Desert: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran
Height: 12-18 inches
Pads: Shaped like a beaver's tail, gray-green to 13 inches
Flowers: Bright rose, 2-3 inches
Fruit: Oval to 1.5 inches, gray -brown, dry at maturity with many seeds
Elevation: 0-9,000 feet

BLIND PRICKLY PEAR    Opuntia rufida

Desert: Chihuahuan near Big Bend, Texas
Height: Up to 6 feet
Pads: Circular, 6 inches, covered with velvety hairs and reddish glochids
Flowers: Bright yellow, orange with age
Fruit: Red and fleshy
Elevation: 2,000-3,500 feet

BROWN-SPINDED PRICKLY PEAR    Opuntia phaeacantha

Desert: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan
Height: 2-3 feet
Pads: Oblong, blue-green, 4-6 inches
Flowers: Yellow, sometimes red at the base
Fruit: Plump, juicy red or purple
Elevation: 2,000-8,000 feet

ENGLEMANN'S PRICKLY PEAR   Opuntia engelmannii

Desert: Sonoran and Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 5 feet
Pads: Blue-green, 12-inch circular or oblong
Flowers: Yellow to peach with age
Fruit: Large, juicy, reddish purple
Elevation: 1,500-6,200 feet


Desert: Mojave, Great Basin
Height: 12-18 inches
Pads: Spiny, 5 inches
Flowers: Bright yellow or rose
Fruit: Very spiny
Elevation: 1,500-7,500 feet


Desert: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 2 feet
Pads: Oval or round, 3-6 inches
Flowers: Sulfur yellow with red base
Fruit: Pear-shaped and hairless
Elevation: 0-5,500 feet

Opuntia phaecantha

Desert: Chihuahuan Desert
Height: Up to 3.5 feet
Pads: Green, 4-6 inches with downward spines
Flowers: Bright yellow, 2 inches
Fruit: Pear-shaped, reddish purple
Elevation: 500-3,000 feet

PANCAKE PRICKLY PEAR   Opuntia chlorotica

Desert: Mojave and Sonoran
Height: Up to 7 feet
Pads: Circular, bluish, arising from a thick, round trunk
Flowers: Yellow with red centers
Fruit: Fleshy, purple-gray
Elevation: 2,000-6,000 feet

PLAINS PRICKLY PEAR   Opuntia polycantha

Desert: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan
Height: 6-12 inches
Pads: Oval, 3-4 inches, blue-green
Flowers: Reddish-orange to yellow, 2.5 inches.
Fruit: Very spiny, to 1.5 inches, tan and dry when ripe
Elevation: 4,000-10,000 feet

PURPLE PRICKLY PEAR   Opuntia violacea

Desert: Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 3.5 feet
Pads: Oblong, bluish purple, with long black or white spines
Flowers: Yellow with red centers
Fruit: Oval to 1.5 inches, green
Elevation: 3,000-5,500 feet

SANTA RITA PRICKLY PEAR   Opuntia violacea

Desert: Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 6 feet
Pads: Hairless lavender to purple
Flowers: Lemon-yellow
Fruit: Oval to 1.5 inches, green
Elevation: 1,500-7,500 feet


Desert: Chihuahuan Desert, Big Bend, Texas
Height: Up to 4 feet
Pads: Elongated, yellow-green with orange spines
Flowers: Yellow-orange with red bases
Fruit: Spiny, fleshy, yellow-green
Elevation: 2,000-3,000 feet

TEXAS PRICKLY PEAR   Opuntia lindheimeri

Desert: Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 5.5 feet
Pads: 10-inch oval with translucent yellow spines
Flowers: Yellow
Fruit: Purple with white top
Elevation: 0-4,600 feet

TUBEROUS PRICKLY PEAR   Opuntia macrorhiza

Desert: Sonoran and Chihuahuan
Height: 6 inches
Pads: Dark green or blue-green
Flowers: Yellow, red centers or all red
Fruit: Juicy and spineless
Elevation: 2,000-9,000 feet


Nopales is the Spanish name for Prickly Pear Cactus pads. Prickly Pear Cactus are members of the Opuntia genus, and produce both nopales, a vegetable, and tuna, a fruit.

Native Americans used Nopales to poultice bruises and dress wounds. They also boiled and crushed the pads, then added the sticky juice to mortar or whitewash to increase adhesiveness.

Nopales have been more popular as a food source in Mexico for hundreds of years. Recently, they have gained increasing popularity in the United States as well.

As a vegetable, Nopales can be used in salads, casseroles, soups, grilled and prepared in a variety of other ways. Nopales are somewhat tart and have a green bean- or asparagus -like flavor.

Nopales are often compared to Okra, because of the sticky substance they release when cooked. This should be rinsed off before serving or before further preparation as an ingredient.

Nopales can be purchased year-round in Mexican markets and some grocery stores in the U.S. They can also easily be harvested from your own Prickly Pear Cactus growing on your property.

Selection & Preparation

Select small or medium sized, firm pads. Make sure the pads you select are not wrinkled, soggy or too soft. These pads (or paddles) are modified branches, which range in color from pale to dark green. They also contain sharp, thorny needles, which are modified leaves.

These, thorny needles must be removed with a knife or vegetable peeler before cooking. Remove any nodules, the thick stem, and trim the edges off of the pads as well. Make sure you wear rubber or leather gloves when handling Nopales to avoid injury from the thorny needles.

Wash thoroughly and follow the recipe instructions below. Nopales can be tightly wrapped and stored in a refrigerator for one to two weeks.

 Nutritional Facts  
 Serving Size 1 cup raw (142g)  
 Calories 60  Calories from Fat 10
 Amount Per Serving  % daily value
 Total Fat 1g  1%
 Saturated Fat 0g  0%
 Cholesterol 0mg  0%
 Sodium 5mg  0%
 Total Carbohydrates 14g  5%
 Dietary Fiber 5g  20%
 Sugars NA  
 Protein 1g  
 Vitamin A  0%
 Vitamin C  32%
 Calcium  8%
 Iron  2%






Nopales on The Grill

Prepare the cactus pads as described in the preparation section above. Once you have removed the needles, nodules and thoroughly washed the pads, they are ready for the grill. Cook each pad for approximately 10 to 12 minutes on each side. While grilling, brush each side of the cactus pad with olive oil or a flavored oil of your choice. Pepper or garlic-flavored oil are often used on grilled Nopales.


Harvest only the tender, young pads. Cut the pad from the main plant leaving about one inch. This stub will be the start of a new pad. Use a knife to cut out the spines and a vegetable peeler or brush to scrub the pads, which will remove any protruding nodes. (These nodes are the beginnings of new spines.) Once the pads have been cleaned, the nopales may be cooked by either boiling or grilling. Some people cut them up and eat them raw in salads, but for most, removing the mucilagenous liquid by cooking is preferable. Boiled, their taste has frequently been compared to that of green beans. Grilled, nopales have a delicious, distinctive flavor of their own, especially good with grilled meat.

To boil nopales, wash them and cut them into small squares or strips, if they have not been purchased this way. Place them in a pot with cold water to cover, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Some Mexican cooks say that by adding a few tomatillo husks, the sticky liquid (commonly called "babas") will be more completely extracted from the vegetable. Others say that a pinch of baking soda accomplishes the same thing. I have tried both and found the baking soda to be more effective, but use only a pinch and add it at the very end. Using more may cause the water to foam up and run over.

To grill nopales, cut them from the wide, rounded outer edges toward the narrow base, but not all the way to the end, fanning out the cuts so that the paddles look fringed. Brush them with olive or vegetable oil and grill until soft and slightly charred. Grilled nopales are a requisite element of a parrillada, or Mexican mixed grill. Nopales can also be cut into strips, batter-dipped and rolled in breadcrumbs, cornmeal or flour, and fried like french fries. In addition, cooked nopales can be added to soups, stews and salads. They can be scrambled with eggs - a favorite Mexican Lenten dish - or used as a taco filling.




Scrambled Nopales

Prepare the cactus pads as described in the preparation section above. Once you have removed the needles, nodules and thoroughly washed the pads, slice into bite-size pieces. Sauté the sliced pads in a small amount of butter for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside. Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl; add shredded cheese and the sautéed cactus pieces. Pour the egg mixture into a skillet and scramble. Serve warm with salt and pepper to taste.


Nopales Rellenos (Stuffed Cactus Pads)

Prepare the cactus pads as described in the preparation section above. Once you have removed the needles, nodules and thoroughly washed the ads, boil in 3 cups of water with the garlic, onion, and salt. Drain.

On each of 6 cactus pads place a slice of cheese and 3 to 4 pieces of onion. Top with another cactus pad, secure with wooden toothpicks and coat with flour.

Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, then add the yolks and beat for 1 to 2 minutes more to create a batter.

Heat the oil in a frying pan, dip the stuffed cactus pads into the egg batter and fry until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels.

Serve drenched with cooked tomato sauce.


Nopales Salsa

Prepare the cactus pads as described in the preparation section above. Once you have removed the needles, nodules and thoroughly washed the pads, grill for about 7 minutes on each side. Slice the grilled pads into strips. Place tomatillos, cubed onions and garlic in a baking dish, then cook in a 450-degree oven for 20-25 minutes. Roast poblanos on grill or under the broiler, then peel them and remove the seeds. Place all ingredients in a blender and mix until well chopped. A little water may be needed to moisten the salsa. Serve chilled with chips or use to season tacos, burritos or other Mexican dishes.


Nopales Salad

Prepare the cactus pads as described in the preparation section above. Once you have removed the needles, nodules and thoroughly washed the pads, chop into bite-size pieces. Place the chopped Nopales into a pan with the 4 cups of water, halved onion and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 30-45 minutes or until tender. Drain Nopales and combine with remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt if necessary. This dish gets better if you let is sit a few hours in the refrigerator before serving. Serves 4 or more.

Prickly Pear Juice

Select ripe prickly pears, including a few on the green side to add pectin if making jelly. Wash and rinse. Place in a pot with 1 cup of water and cook over low heat until tender (about 20 minutes). Mash with a potato masher and strain to remove seeds and fibers.

Prickly Pear Jelly

4 cups prickly pear juice
5 cups sugar
1 package of pectin

Follow manufacturer's directions for adding ingredients and boil for 5 minutes. Pour into sterilized jars and seal. Should syrup not jell, repeat cooking time.

Prickly Pear Puree

Wash and peel ripe prickly pears. Cut in half with a knife and scoop out the seeds. Force the raw pulp through a medium to fine strainer. Freeze either fruit pulp or the puree. Simply pack into freezer containers and seal. Thaw before using.

Prickly Pear Salad Dressing

1/2 cup prickly pear puree
1/3 cup salad oil (not olive oil)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
3 to 4 Tbs. tarragon white wine vinegar

Shake all ingredients together in a covered jar. Makes about 1 cup . This pretty pink dressing is thin like an oil and vinegar dressing, but lower in calories. Good on fruit salads and tossed green salads.

Prickly Pear Marmalade

4 cups chopped prickly pears
1 cup sliced lemon
2 oranges
1 or more cups of sugar (see below)

Chop orange peel and pulp. Add 4 cups water to lemon and orange. Let stand 12 to 18 hours in a cool place. Boil until peel is tender. Cool. Measure lemon, orange and water in which cooked. Add chopped prickly pears and 1 cup of sugar for each cup of combined pear, lemon, orange and water. Boil to the jellying point. Pour, boiling hot, into hot jars. Seal at once.






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