Herbs & Plants
Of The Southwest
Latin Name: Opuntia (spp) Common Names: Beavertail, Tuna, Nopal, Indian Fig
This is another opportunistic plant, more common now than in ancient times, because of cattle overgrazing. Prickly Pear has its own built in protection from hoofed menaces! Prickly Pear is the classic Western cactus, scattered all over the Southwest, often growing where nothing else will grow. The plant is easy to identify, with its flat, jointed series of “Mickey Mouse Ears” pads, (really flattened stems, not leaves) and the flowers are usually yellow ("beavertail" is rose red). The pickly pear fruits were a regular dietary item for Ancestral Puebloans, the Aztec, and the ancient Maya. The fruits are more than just edible and make a delicious jelly. The flat leaf segments are used in traditional Mexican cooking as “Nopales”. The juice of the ripe red fruits (“Tuna”) are used by traditional Navajo rug weavers as a source of dye for their wool.
The skinned and filleted pads can be used as a skin or wound dressing, similar to the use of aloe vera. The juice of the prickly pear is used today in Mexico as an anti-inflammatory and diuretic, for infections of the urinary tract for symptom relief, in combination with an antibiotic to kill the bacteria causing the problem. The juice has been effectively used to lower the blood sugar in adult-onset diabetes, using at least 4 ounces of juice daily. The dried flowers of the prickly pear are said to be effective in improving capillary fragility, in conditions where mucosal linings have been inflamed for a length of time, such as bronchitis, asthma, vaginitis, diverticulitis, etc.
The long, classic, straight spines can be a painful nuisance, of course, but the small bristly ones are the most annoying, and can work their way into the flesh and cause trouble for days. Be respectful of this plant and use heavy gloves and great care when gathering! OUCH!
Be sure of the identity of the plant before you use it. If a preparation makes you sick or gives you a rash, don't use it, and throw it away! If your condition does not improve, see your doctor. Be sure to let your physician know EVERYTHING that you are taking!