In Season: Nopal Cactus (Prickly Pear)

Nopal cactus are members of the Opuntia genus from the Cactaceae family, and are commonly known as the Prickly Pear cactus. There are dozens of varieties and well over 200 species. They grow throughout Mexico and the southwestern United States and are known for their nutritional and medicinal properties. It is interesting to note that there are two fresh food crops – a vegetable and a fruit – harvested from the nopal cactus.

The ripe flat cactus pads, called nopales (pronounced noh-PAHL-leys), are commonly used in Mexican dishes. This tender vegetable is used in salads, eggs, stews and tacos and provides an excellent source of vitamin A and C, calcium, magnesium and dietary fiber. Nopales, or nopalitos, taste a little like green beans and have a slimy texture similar to okra when cooked. To prepare nopales, you need to remove the sharp spines (espinas) with a vegetable peeler or small pairing knife, wash them with cool water and trim off any blemished areas. Then cut them into strips or bite-sized pieces, depending on the dish you are preparing.

Nopal cactus also produce a sweet edible pear-shaped fruit called tuna, or prickly pear. The fruit grows on the edges of the pads, reaches 2-6 inches long (5-15 cm) and ranges in color from yellowish-green (less sweet) to orange or dark red (very sweet). They are often used in salads, jams, desserts and agua fresca. Tunas are covered with prickly hair-like splinters, called glochids, and should be handled and cleaned with care.

How Nopal Cacti Grow

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Nopal cactus begin flowering profusely in the late spring.

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They also produce several new buds, like the six shown on the mature dark green paddle on the right.

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The buds develop into pineapple-like sprouts, like the small one in the upper left corner and the two larger sprouts near the center of this photo.

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Those sprouts quickly grow into bright green pads, like the one in the bottom left quadrant. These fresh tender immature pads, called nopales, can be eaten raw or cooked.

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After several weeks, there were dozens of new pads on the nopal cactus in my garden (the ones shown are actually past the point of picking).

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While the mature dark green paddles may look spine-free, the entire cactus is covered with numerous almost-invisible blond splinters, called glochids, as well as with large spines on the trunk (shown above). If you touch one of the pads or flowers, you’ll discover this quickly… as the glochids are very irritating and hurt like-the-dickens.

Editor’s Note: It just so happens that I acquired the cactus in these photos exactly a year ago. I casually mentioned to my gardener that I wanted another nopal for my garden, and he delivered and planted this one for me for following week. When I asked him who “Javier y Chepi” were (you may have noticed their names engraved near the base), he just shrugged his shoulders and smiled. I looked at him and said, “well, I sure hope they don’t miss their cactus.” We still chuckle about it today!

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Nopal flowers, which form on the end of the pads, change from light yellow (shown above) to a beautiful watermelon-color.

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A few days later, a bright lime green pistil begins to emerge from the center.

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Over the next 2 days, the pistil elongates and the bright pink stamens begin to emerge.

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Within 24 hours, the flower is in full bloom, with its petals and pistil both slightly open.

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The flowers begin to dry up and die almost immediately after blooming, like the top left flower.

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After the flowers die, the green bases (I can’t find an official name) normally develop into pear-shaped edible fruit, called tuna.

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After patiently and anxiously awaiting for the tunas to ripen, you can imagine my disappointment as I watched them shrivel up and die instead (above photo). After much research, I learned that this particular variety – known as Cochineal Nopal Cactus (Opuntia cochenillifera) and is common here in Rincón de Guayabitos, Nayarit, Mexico – does not produce fruit. The good news, however, is that it is one of the varieties that produce high quality nopales.


 

Photos of other nopal cacti varieties…

Nopal Bio 1
This nopal variety produces paddles, fruit and flowers on the same plant.

Tuna LaJornada
“Tunas blancas” (white prickly pear fruit) ready to be harvested.

Nopal Bio 2
Hand-picking and sorting tunas.

Nopal Bio 3
Mechanically cleaning and packaging tunas.

Nopal LaJornada
Nopals being packed for export.

 (The five photos above come from biodiversidad.gob.mx and lajornada.com)

Click here to view more articles about what’s Flora & Fauna: Fruits & Vegetables

by Allyson Williams

This story was submitted by one of our regular contributors. To learn more about the author/photographer, click on the “Contributors” tab near the top of the page. If you want to join in and share information, stories and photos of Jaltemba Bay, Mexico, please email them to Allyson@JaltembaBayLife.com

Leave a Review

6 Reviews on “In Season: Nopal Cactus (Prickly Pear)”

  1. :

    Hi, we live in South Florida, i have a Nopal Cactus that i would like to know what variety it is, which variety produces the best fruits and where could i find it. Thank you for your help. Aldo

    1. :

      Aldo, I might suggest you go visit a local nursery to find out which varieties grow in your area.

  2. :

    I wonder if you sell young prickly pears tree , that tree should produce green fruit of cactus( tuna), if you sell that young tree how much it will cost delivered to FAIRFAX VIRGINIA MANY THANKS Mohamad Almiski 703-764-8585

    1. :

      You can probably find a local nursery that can order one for you.

  3. :

    In the Mexican markets in the US which I patronize, mature cactus leaves are sold in the vegetable/fruit section. They aren't the younger, semitranslucent nopales of which the article speaks. Are ONLY the younger leaves used in cooking in Mexico, or are the thicker, more mature leaves used as well? Does it vary from species to species?

    1. :

      Wayne, all the Mexicans I spoke with told me that only the young immature pads, which tend to be bright green and somewhat flexible to the touch, are eaten. Those same immature pads are also sold in Mexican markets. They are not, however, translucent in any way. In fact, they look just like the pads in photo #6, but you can feel the difference when you touch them. These are already a little too firm, even after a few weeks growth. That said, one of our workers stopped by our house yesterday afternoon and mentioned that I should start eating the pads on my cactus - which would lead me to believe that some Mexicans do eat them when they are past their prime. My maid just brought me five new cactus starts from her trip to Talpa last week. I am excited to plant them and plan do another article next season, as I hope to have both tunas and pitayas growing in my garden!

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