Nopales, or Prickly Pear cactus, include numerous species of the genus Opuntia which thrive in poor soils and arid lands. These cacti can be grown and harvested for their tunas, or fruit, and for their pads. They thrive in deeper, well drained soils, and can tolerate pH levels as high as 7.8. California researchers have investigated the use of Nopales as alternatives for agriculture in selenium rich soil. Because the plants excel at water retention, they are a no brainer for agriculture in times of drought. They are also valued as animal feed. A single plant can live 80 years, which means a home gardener with a good prickly pear growing in their yard can make pads available for a lifetime.
Popular in Mexican cuisine, and grown worldwide, Nopales is valued for an abundance of polysaccharides that appear to stabilize insulin. For this reason, they are sought after by diabetics seeking to maintain healthy blood glucose levels. The phytochemicals nopales contain may also offer relief for hangovers.
Many cultivars have been developed in Mexico and other regions of the world where plants have been grown historically as food for humans and as fodder for livestock. In recent years, varieties have also been patented collaboratively through Fresno State, Deiner’s Red Rock Ranch, and USDA.
Spines may deter novices from attempting to prepare meals using prickly pear fruits or pads, but a skilled chef can quickly remove the spines from fruit or pads with a knife. Beginning with spineless cultivars (which may still contain a few spines) can reduce the labor necessary.
Once the spines are removed, pads can then be served whole, as shown above, or sliced into thin strips, as in the colorful dish below.
It is not uncommon to serve nopales with breakfast, alongside eggs. The fruits, called tunas, may be made into jellies, jams, or sauces.
Like okra, the polysaccharides in nopales contribute to a somewhat slimy texture, so it is important to learn how to prepare them properly. These polysaccharides help the plant store water, and contribute to its ability to stabilize insulin.
In lands where water is becoming increasingly scarce, proactive growers may find increasing pressure to farm alternative crops that utilize less water. Nopales offer one example of a crop well suited to agriculture in arid lands.