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
Nopal cactus begin flowering profusely in the late spring.
They also produce several new buds, like the six shown on the mature dark green paddle on the right.
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.
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.
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).
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!
A few days later, a bright lime green pistil begins to emerge from the center.
Over the next 2 days, the pistil elongates and the bright pink stamens begin to emerge.
The flowers begin to dry up and die almost immediately after blooming, like the top left flower.
After the flowers die, the green bases (I can’t find an official name) normally develop into pear-shaped edible fruit, called tuna.
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…
This nopal variety produces paddles, fruit and flowers on the same plant.
“Tunas blancas” (white prickly pear fruit) ready to be harvested.
Hand-picking and sorting tunas.
Mechanically cleaning and packaging tunas.
(The five photos above come from biodiversidad.gob.mx and lajornada.com)
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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