Monday, April 15, 2013


CACTUS – Opuntia spp. (4), Perennial Shrub or Trees (depending on species)
     Family – Cactaceae (Cactus Family)
     Genus – Opuntia (Pricklypear)

Different species of prickly pear cactus have numerous common names, such as Indian Fig, Barbary Fig, Paddle Cactus, Nopal, Nopales, Cochineal Nopal Cactus and Devil’s Tongue.   Don’t let that confuse you because they all look very similar. 

Prickly Pear - Optuntia ficus-indica

Some prickly pear cactus can get as large as small trees such as the Optuntia ficus-indica shown above, but others creep around near the ground.
A Young Cochineal Nopal Cactus - Opuntia Cochenillifera

Many people in the U.S. do not even know that the prickly pear cactus is edible.  They’re considered a staple in Mexico however and many times you can find them at the grocery store. If you live out west, you see them almost every time you pull out of the driveway along roadsides for mile after mile.  Being a cactus, they do well in states like Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and other dry and arid regions, but who knew that most of the many species will grow right here in the south, and guess what? You do not even have to water them.  Matter of fact, the do quite well without water, so much so that I cut some prickly pear pads almost two months ago and they are still in a bag unplanted, without dirt or moisture and they are still green.  If I planted each of the 30 or so pads I have tomorrow, they’d root and I’d have 30 large cactus plants in just a few years.  Being so easy to grow, resistant to drought, health benefits and the sheer volume of edibility of this particular genus of cactus make it a very important food plant for all.  Even here in the U.S. if you venture into a Mexican ethnic food market, you’re likely to run across prickly pear cactus pads, also commonly called nopales, in the grocery section.
 There are at least 68 different species of Opuntia in the U.S. some being more palatable than others.  Now, that’s a lot of cactus.  Many of them will grow right here in the south, but there already are a few growing here that are native to the area.  Some of the native species grow low to the ground, almost creeping along while others get as large as small trees.  Like everything the young ones are best and the older pads get more woody and less palatable with age.

Worldwide, Opuntia Fictus-Indica is one of the more popular edible nopales grown commercially for its fruit and also for the vegetable nopales in Mexico.  I’ve listed some Opuntia and their locations in our area below:

Cochineal Nopal Cactus (Opuntia Cochenillifera) is found in Florida and Hawaii.
Devil's-Tongue (Opuntia Austrina)– Found in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas.

Erect Pricklypear (Opuntia Dillenii) – Found in South Carolina south to Florida.

Barbary Fig (Opuntia Ficus-Indica)– Located from North Carolina south to Florida.

(Opuntia Humifusa) (2) – Found in all of the eastern U.S. and southern Canada west to New Mexico.  This is one of the most prolific of the eastern U.S. Prickly Pear.                                                                                                                                                    Cockspur Pricklypear (Opuntia Pusilla)– Found in the coastal states of the southeastern U.S. from Texas to North Carolina. Erect Pricklypear (Opuntia Stricta) – The coastal states of the southeastern U.S. from Louisiana to Virginia.

Turban Prickly Pear (Opuntia Turbinata)– Georgia and Florida.

Once "De-Pricked" Prickly Pear can be Handled Without Gloves
Picking the Ingredients for a Little Stir-fry

 Cooking Opuntia on the Grill
 Stir-fry with Peppers, Onions & Conecuh Sausage

 Add a Little Rice and You're Ready to Eat!

 Stir-fry with Chicken and Opuntia on a flour Tortilla Ready to Roll

For the Next Meal, Let's cut it up into Squares and Cook with Peas
 Add Some Cornbread with the Opuntia and Peas and We're Good to Go!

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