Prickly Pear/Tuna Plant in a 3 Gallon Container. Imagine a plant which can provide you with several year-round foods, as well as a sweetener, an ice cream flavoring, a red dye, a hair conditioner, flour, and still be a drought tolerant burglar fence. This versatile plant is the prickly pear cactus, providing food, medicine, dye, and landscaping. The pads, fruits, seeds, and flowers of the prickly pear are all edible and can be prepared in a variety of ways. The fruit tast similiar to a watermelon. Prickly pear planted around the perimeter of your yard provides a steady supply of food, and serves as a natural fence through which most animal and human intruders will not penetrate. An edible fence or hedge.
Prickly pear cacti typically grow with flat, rounded platyclades that are armed with two kinds of spines; large, smooth, fixed spines and small, hairlike spines called glochids that easily penetrate skin and detach from the plant. Many types of prickly pears grow into dense, tangled structures.
Prickly pear species are found in abundance in the West and Southwest of the United States and throughout much of Mexico. Prickly pears are also the only types of cactus natively found to grow in the eastern United States. Opuntia are the most cold-tolerant of the lowland cacti, extending into western and southern Canada; one subspecies, Opuntia fragilis var. fragilis, has been found growing along the Beatton River in central British Columbia, southwest of Cecil Lake at 56° 17’ N latitude and 120° 39’ W longitude.
Charles Darwin was the first to note that these cacti have thigmotacticanthers: when the anthers are touched, they curl over, depositing their pollen. This movement can be seen by gently poking the anthers of an open Opuntia flower. The same trait has evolved convergently in other cacti
The fruit of prickly pears, commonly called cactus figs, Indian fig or tuna, is edible, although it has to be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin before consumption. If the outer layer is not properly removed, glochids can be ingested causing discomfort of the throat, lips, and tongue as the small spines are easily lodged in the skin. Native Americans like the Tequesta would roll the fruit around in suitable medium (e.g. grit) to "sand" off the glochids. Today, parthenocarpic (seedless) cultivars are also available.
Cactus figs are often used to make candies and jelly and a refreshing drink. The fruit is a favourite in Sicilian cuisine, where it is called ficurinnia (Indian fig).
Opuntia ficus-indica has been introduced to Europe and flourishes in areas with a suitable climate, such as the south of France, southern Italy, Sicily where they are referred to as fichi d'India (Indian figs), along the Struma River in Bulgaria, in Southern Portugal and Madeira where they are called tabaibo or "Indian figs", and eastern and southern Spain as well as Gibraltar where they are known as chumbo or higo chumbo ("chumbo fig"). In Greece it grows in such places as Corfu and its figs are known as frangosyka (French figs) or pavlosyka (Paul's figs). The figs are also grown in Cyprus, where they are known as papoutsosyka (shoe figs). The prickly pear also grows widely on the islands of Malta where it is enjoyed by the Maltese as a typical summer fruit (known as Bajtra tax-Xewk) as well as being used to make the popular liqueur known as Bajtra. The prickly pear is so commonly found in the Maltese islands that it is often used as a dividing wall between many of Malta's characteristic terraced fields in place of the usual rubble walls.
Tungi is the local St. Helenian name for cactus pears. The plants (Indian Fig Opuntia) were originally brought to the island by the colonial ivory traders from East Africa in the 1850s. Tungi cactus now grows wild and organically in the dry coastal regions of the island. Three principal cultivars of tungi grow on the island: the 'English' with yellow fruit; the 'Maderia' with large red fruit; and the small firm 'Spiny Red'.
The young stem segments, usually called nopales, are also edible in most species of Opuntia. They are commonly used in Mexican cuisine in dishes such as huevos con nopales (eggs with nopal), or tacos de nopales. Nopales are also an important ingredient in New Mexican cuisine.
Most species of Opuntia contain a range of alkaloids in ample quantities, notably substituted phenethylamines. While the mere presence of such compounds has been confirmed in many species without further details, they have been studied more thoroughly in others. Identified compounds of medical significance include 3-methoxytyramine, candicine, hordenine, N-methyltyramine and tyramine.
The stem of certain Opuntia spp. can be used to treat type II diabetes, diarrhea, and stomach ache. However, usefulness of Opuntia in treating diabetes is not at all resolved. Although some researchers have shown a blood glucose-lowering effect of O. streptacantha, another study of three other species of Opuntia (O. lasiacantha, O. velutina, and O. macrocentra, and , and , and , and , and , and , , and ) showed no such effect. Yet another study, raised concern about toxic effects on the kidney.
It may be that certain species are effective and useful in diabetes while others are not but this needs to be clarified with further research before recommending its use. Furthermore, when buying nopal in the market, it is impossible to know which species one is buying and therefore whether or not it is useful in treating diabetes.
Indian Fig Opuntia (and probably others) might have a reducing effect on alcohol hangover by inhibiting the production of inflammatory mediators. Studies have yielded differing results, with some studies witnessing significant reductions in nausea, dry mouth, and loss of appetite as well as less risk of a severe hangover while others witnessing no compelling evidence for effects on alcohol hangover
The gel-like sap of prickly pears can be used as hair conditioner.