The Magic of Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear Cactus With Fruit

Prickly Pear Cactus With Fruit

Most people see the menacing spines of cactus plants, and shrink back, keeping a safe distance away. But many others are discovering the incredible benefits offered by these same cacti, and are welcoming them into their yards…and even onto their tables. Health professionals, botanists, and even cooks are recognizing the value of eating and drinking prepared cactus pads and fruits, and science is backing up their enthusiasm.

People from many cultures have been using the fruits and pads of prickly pear cactus for both medicine and nourishment for thousands of years, and we are finding out now why these prickly plants are so revered by so many.

The prickly pear fruits, also known as cactus apples, or tunas in Spanish, are a rich source of the mineral magnesium and the amino acid taurine, nutrients often cited as important to brain and heart health. The fruits are also rich in flavonoids, antioxidants credited with keeping arteries healthy. The low-calorie fruit is high in vitamin C, calcium, and potassium, with little sodium and no cholesterol or saturated fat.

The cactus pads, or nopales, have been shown to lower glucose levels in diabetics’ blood. Prickly pear cactus contains fiber and pectin, which can lower blood glucose by decreasing the absorption of sugar in the stomach and intestine. Besides being used to treat type 2 diabetes, prickly pear has also been used to treat high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, and viral infections. Poultices from the pads have been made by some cultures to fight infection, reduce swelling and pain of injuries, and speed healing of wounds.

Ruby Nectar, made from cactus juice

Ruby Nectar, made from cactus juice

Novelty foods are also made from prickly pear, including candies, jellies, ice cream and margaritas, and are sold in some southwest stores. Besides all these food and medicinal uses, prickly pear cactus add striking textures to southwest landscapes, and are incredibly drought tolerant.

At our home, we are especially fond of extracting the beautiful juice from the ripe, purple prickly pear fruits, from which we make a drink we call “Ruby Nectar”.  It has a taste all its own, but we enjoy the whole process of harvesting the fruits with tongs, removing the spines using a secret family technique (I’ll reveal that in a separate article), freezing the fruits, and then pressing out the pure juice as the fruits thaw. The deep red juice simulates the color of the best zinfandel or cabernet wine.

Next time you think about cursing that spiny cactus, remember all the gifts that this friend in health offers to us.