Oh the lowly prickly pear.
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.

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 Nectar is
made with the juice and pulp of
the fruits.

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, there
are many varieties, non-native
imports and hybrids, so
identification can often be difficult.

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.
Check out the great Prickly Pear
Jelly recipe at the bottom of the
When the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca,
journeyed through the area now known as Texas,
he encountered numerous Indian tribes who
relied upon the prickly pear cactus for survival.  
In the spring, when the prickly pear was loaded
with fruit, Cabeza de Vaca chronicles how the
natives would gorge themselves on the "Tuna".
He also noted that many tribes, when first
meeting with Whites, would bring gifts of prickly
pear just like many northern tribes would bring
gifts of corn and tobacco.
Prickly Pear secret!  Have you ever
seen a white cotton looking substance
on a prickly pear pad and wondered
what it was?  Well guess what, it is a
bug that lives and feeds on the cactus.
 The bug is called a Cochineal, better
known as a "Red Dye Bug".  In colonial
days this was a greatly sought after
dye especially in Spanish provinces.
Even today, some European make-up
companies still use the red dye bug.
         Prickly Pear Jelly

Ingredients:  Ripe tunas
                1 Box Sure Jell
                 5 cups Juice
                 7 cups sugar
                 2 lemons

Pick ripe tunas with tongs (ripe
when they turn dark and have a
patent leather look) They need to
be deep purple in color.  Remove
spines by rolling around in sand, or
with water pressure from a hose in
a bucket.  Many times I scape them
with a sharp knife to make sure I
get them as clean as possible.

Cut the tuna in half, place in a pot
and add water, just enough to
cover the top of the tuna.  Allow the
tuna to simmer covered until they
become soft enough to crush.  
Remove the cover and mash, then
simmer uncovered for ten more

Put through jelly bag, or muslin
After straining through the cloth,
take 5 cups of the juice, add the
juice of two lemons and the Sure
Jell, and bring to a boil, then add
sugar slowly.  Continue cooking at
a rolling boil until it reaches the
jelly stage.

Remove from the fire, skim with a
metal spoon and pour into sterile
jars.  Remember to leave about a
quarter of an inch air space at the
top of the jar.
I usually sterilize my jars and lid
rings in the dishwasher, but use
soap and water in the sink for the
actual lids.  You do not want to
damage the rubber seal on the lids.
I do not have a canner myself, so I
place my jars in a pot of boiling
water.  The water level in the pot is
usually about half way up the
outside of the jar, any more than
this and they tend to float and fall
over. I spoon the hot jelly directly
into the hot jars, then using tongs
or a jar lifter, I take them out and
screw on the lids.  I have used this
method many times and had great
success.  Good luck and enjoy!       
During times of drought, ranchers
would routinely burn the spines
from the prickly pear cactus to
make it easier for their cattle too
eat.  The pads of the prickly pear
are fairly nutritious, and provide
enough nutrition to keep the
animal alive, but that is about it.  
However, when the pads of the
prickly pair are cooked, a chemical
reaction takes place that greatly
boosts the nutritional value.  
Whether the ranchers knew it or
not, the act of burning the spines
from the cactus was greatly
increasing the nutritional benefits
for the cattle.  The difference was
substantial enough that now, not
only will the cow survive the
drought, but she would have
enough nutritional intake to
continue producing milk, thus
allow the cow to feed a calf.
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