Prickly Pears are a succulent member of the Cactaceae family found through the North American and Mexican deserts (where it is known as Nopal) in a wide variety, as far north as South Dakota and as far East as central Texas. The variety specifically mentioned here for it’s medicinal properties is Opuntia engelmannii, although many species share similar qualities. The plant has large, flat pancake like pads connected at nodes and covered in thorny clusters. The succulent pads are actually modified stems, adept at storing water. They bloom during the spring in ranges of magentas and oranges, producing small to extra large magenta, yellow, and orange edible fruits (known in Mexico as Tunas) in the summertime throughout the early fall, sometimes throughout the year depending on the region. The flowers are remarkable for their vibrant colors that last only a day, blooming early in the morning and closing by the time the sun is hot and full in the sky. The plant prefers hillsides, desert basins, and canyon bottoms, growing often in juniper-oak woodlands, grasslands, and dry deserts.
Pads, flowers, and fruits
Flavonoids, octadecadienoic acid, and hexadecanoic acid
Most species of prickly pears have similar effective and safe medicinal qualities. The pulp of the plant, mixed with water, has a cooling effect on the system, easing esophageal and stomach irritations such as ulcers, acid reflux, and gastritis. The mucilage of the plant’s pulp has restorative and protective qualities to the stomach lining, and applied externally to sprains, burns, and bruises reduce swelling, discoloration and inflammation while speeding healing. The cactus also has the ability to reduce blood sugar by up to 20% in individuals with non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus with it’s solulable fiber content, which also binds to cholesterol, lowering LDL. The flowers of the plant, as with most prickly pear cactus, are high in flavonoids, fortifying slow healing tissues. Infusions and other preparations of the flowers can strengthen capillaries and reduce risk for varicose veins. The blossoms also have diuretic properties, benefitting the kidneys and urinary tract, reducing uric acid kidney stones and risk of gout-related conditions. The fruits are high in vitamin C and make delicious, brightly colored jams, wines, candy, and other sweet treats. The whole plant is high in fiber, protein, and minerals including potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium, iron, and zinc.
A popular dish in Mexican cuisine, the cactus pads, known as Nopales, can be sliced and cooked in a variety of way, but are especially worth grilling, sauteeing, or eating raw. They have a flavor reminiscent of lemony green beans. An easy and delicious recipe is to sauté the de-spined and sliced cactus pads with garlic, oregano, and onion, and then toss with fresh tomatoes, queso blanco, pepitas, lime, and fresh cilantro. The prickly pear fruits, called Tunas, are also a popular desert flavoring and coloring, and can be used to make especially good sorbets, margaritas, and gummy candies. The seeds of the fruit can also be ground and used for flour.
Flavor Profile and Energetics
Externally, slices of the pad (de-spined) or the pulp can be applied directly to affected areas. Wear thick leather gloves while collecting pads, flowers, and fruits. The pads can be de-spined and eaten raw or cooked.
Not to be used by individuals with insulin dependent diabetes mellitus. Excessive consumption of the plant is known to cause cactus fever, which is typically self-resolving but an unpleasant experience.
(Sources) 16, 17, 20