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What is Prickly Pear?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated May 17, 2024
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A prickly pear, also known as cactus pear or tuna fruit, has large, fleshy pads. It is an ingredient in a variety of recipes, including marmalades, jellies, and dessert sauces. The pads, fruits, and seeds of this cactus are edible, but the rind is not.

Prickly pears have flattened oval or round stems with spines, which may be long and thick or short and fine. Members of the Opuntia genus, these plants grow in North American deserts as well as other parts of the world. This cactus grows in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico in well-drained soil. An extremely cold-tolerant form of cactus, it can also be found in Canada.

This cactus has yellow, red, or purple blooms and ranges in height from 1 foot (.3 m) to 6-7 feet (1.8-2.1 m). In addition to normal cactus spines, they have additional, finely barbed spines called glochids.

Use the fruit of the prickly pear for jellies, preserves, pickles, and salsas. Combine banana, honey, wine vinegar, lemon and lime juice with the fruit for a vinaigrette. To make a tropical fruit salad, peel and slice the prickly pear and combine with honeydew, guava, pineapple and other fruits. Unsalted butter, prickly pear cactus fruit, honey, and cilantro create a flavored butter. The fruit is also used in pies and dried as a snack food.

The cactus stems, called nopales, are fried or grilled, similar to other vegetables. Use the pads in scrambled egg dishes and salads. Nopalitos refers to the pads once they are cut and prepared.

When selecting a prickly pear, avoid those that are soft or have dark, soft spots. The fruit is generally ready for harvest in late summer or early fall. Use leather or rubber gloves or long handled tongs to pick the fruit from the cactus. Ripen at room temperature.

Be careful to remove all spines when using a prickly pear in cooking. To remove the glochids, use a knife to cut them off or peel the skin. Other methods for removing the glochids include passing the fruit through an open flame or shaking it in a bag of hot coals.

The pads and fruits of this plant are useful in stabilizing blood sugar because they are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fiber. Because prickly pear cactus contains significant amounts of vitamins B1 and B6, it is also sold in capsule form as a supplement. Research is ongoing to determine whether cactus is helpful in controlling cholesterol, obesity, gastrointestinal disorders, skin problems, and even viral infections.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon349819 — On Sep 29, 2013

Help! I need first aid advice! My son was checking out the prickly pair in the grocery store and he got some of those fine little prickers stuck in his hand!

He says they feel like fiberglass slivers. There is no swelling but they hurt like crazy. Can you help me with some suggestions for treatment? --

babbittbunch

By SarahSon — On Jul 14, 2011

When I read the prickly pears tasted like a combination of bubble gum, watermelon and strawberries I really wanted to try some. I knew my aunt had some growing on her property, so I knew where I could get some.

Their natural purple color makes them look so inviting, but you need to be sure and wear gloves when you are working with them. The cactus skin can be unforgiving.

I went online to figure out the best way to prepare them and ended up making a prickly pear syrup that was pretty good over some warm pancakes. It ended up being quite an interesting project and I can't say that I would do it again, but at least I know what they taste like.

By julies — On Jul 13, 2011

I had never even heard of prickly pears before visiting a friends house and she offered me some prickly pear pickles.

They had a very interesting taste to them and were unlike any pickle I had ever tasted before. They had a slightly hot taste to them because she puts some jalapeno peppers and garlic clove in each jar of pickles while they were aging.

I have made pickles before with cucumbers and appreciate the work that goes in to them. They were very interesting to try, but I didn't like them enough to find some prickly pears and make them myself.

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