Opuntia ficus-indica

Opuntia ficus-indica is a species of cactus that has long been a domesticated crop plant important in agricultural economies throughout arid and semiarid parts of the world. It is thought to have originated in Mexico. [1] Some of the common English names for the plant and its fruits are Indian fig opuntia , Barbary fig , pear cactus , spineless cacti , and prickly pear , with this common name Opuntia species. In Mexican Spanish, the plant is called nopal , while the fruit is called tuna, which are names also used in American English , especially as culinary terms.

General information

Fig opuntia is primarily a fruit crop, and also for vegetable nopales and other uses. Most culinary references to the “prickly pear” are referring to this species. The name “tuna” is also used for the fruit of this cactus, and for Opuntia in general; According to Alexander von Humboldt , it was a word of Taino originated in the Spanish language around 1500. [2]

Cacti are good crops for dry areas because they efficiently convert water into biomass . O. ficus-indica , as the most widespread of the long-domesticated cactuses, is as economically important as maize and blue agave in Mexico today. Because Opuntia species hybridize readily (much like oaks ), the wild origin of O. ficus-indica is likely to have been in Mexico due to the fact that its close genetics are found in central Mexico. [3]


Opuntia ficus-indica is a polyploid , hermaphrodite and autogamous . [4] As Opuntia species grow in semi-arid environments, the main factor in their environment is water. They have developed a number of adaptations to dry conditions, notably succulence . [5]

The perennial shrub Opuntia ficus-indica can grow up to 3-5m tall, with thick, succulent and oblong to spatulate stems called cladodes . It has a water-repellent and sun-reflecting waxy epidermis . Cladodes that are 1-2 years old flowers, the fruit’s colors ranging from pale green to deep red. [4] [6]

The plants in three distinct colors: white, yellow, and red. The flowers first appear in early May the early summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and the fruit ripen from August through October. citation needed ] The fruits are typically eaten, minus the thick outer skin, after chilling in a refrigerator for a few hours. They have a similar taste to sweet watermelon . The bright red / purple or white / yellowish flesh is usually swallowed, but should be avoided by those who have problems digesting seeds.


Human consumption

Jams and jellies are produced from the fruit, which resembles strawberries and figs in color and flavor. Mexicans have used Opuntia for thousands of years to make an alcoholic drink called colonche .

In Sicily, a prickly pear-flavored liqueur called “Ficodi” is produced, flavored somewhat like a medicinal / aperitif. In Malta, a liqueur called bajtra (the Maltese name for prickly pear) is made from this fruit, which can be found growing in every field. On the island of St. Helena , the prickly pear distilled liquor, Tungi Spirit .

Cactus pads ( nopales , plural, nopal , singular), usually picked before the spines harden. They are sliced ​​into strips, skinned or unskinned, and fried with eggs and jalapeños , served as a breakfast treat. They have a texture and flavor like string beans.

They can be boiled, used raw with fruit juice, cooked on a frying pan, and often used as a side dish with chopped onion and cilantro.


The cattle industry of the Southwest United States has begun to cultivate O. ficus-indica as a fresh source of feed for cattle. [7] The cactus is grown both as a feed source and a boundary fence. Cattle avoid the sharp spines of the cactus and do not stray from an area enclosed by it. The cactus pads are low in dry matter and crude protein, but they are useful in drought conditions. In addition to the food value, the moisture content adequately eliminates watering the cattle and the human effort in achieving that chore.

Soil erosion prevention

Opuntia ficus-indica are planted in hedges to provide effective erosion control in the Mediterranean basin . Under these conditions, nitrogen and organic matter are improved. Structural stability of the soil is enhanced, while water storage capacity and permeability is enhanced. [8] Prickly pear plantations also have a positive impact on the growth of other species. [9]

Opuntia ficus-indica is being advantageously used in Tunisia and Algeria to slow down and direct the movement of the vegetative recovery, minimizing deterioration of its terraces with its deep and strong rooting system. [10]


Another use of the plant is an ingredient in adobe to bind and waterproof roofs. [3]

O. ficus-indica (as well as other species in Opuntia and Nopalea ) is cultivated in nopalries to serve as a host plant for cochineal insects, qui Produce desirable red and purple dyes, a practice dating to the pre-Columbian era . [11]

Mucilage from prickly pear may work as a natural, nontoxic dispersant for oil spills. [12]



The most commercially valuable use for Opuntia ficus-indica today is for the broad, sweet fruit, called tunas. Areas with significant tuna-growing cultivation include Mexico , Mediterranean Basin , Middle East and Northern Africa . [13] The cactus grows wild and cultivated to heights of 12-16 ft (4-5 m). In Namibia , O. ficus-indica is a common drought-resistant fodder plant. [14]


Factors that limit the growth of prickly pear, rainfall, soil, atmospheric humidity and temperature. [15] The minimum rainfall requirement is 200mm per year as long as it is sandy and deep. The ideal growth conditions when it comes to rainfall are 200-400 mm per year. [8]

O. ficus-indica is sensitive to lack of oxygen in the root zone, requiring well-drained soils. [8] Opuntia ficus-indica is similar to CAM that is not salt-tolerant in their root zone where growth can be found under high salt concentration. [8] O. ficus-indica grows usually in regions where relative humidity is above 60% and saturation deficit further explanation needed ] occurs. [8] O. ficus-indica is absent in regions where there is less than 40% humidity for more than a month. [15]Average daily temperature is 1.5-2 ° C. At -10 to -12 ° C, prickly pear growth is inhibited even if it is exposed to these temperatures only for a few minutes. The maximum temperature of prickly pear is above 50 ° C. [8]

The plant is considered to be in the Mediterranean where it is originally cultivated. quote needed ]

Harvest and preparation

As the fruits of Opuntia ficus-indica are delicate, they need to be carefully harvested by hand. The small spines on the fruits are removed by rubbing them on an abrasive surface or sweeping them through grass. Before consumption, they are peeled and sliced. [16]

The pads of the plant (mainly used as fodder) also need to be harvested by hand. The pads are cut with a knife, detaching the pad from the plant in the joint. If Opuntia ficus-indica is grown for drilling production, spineless cultivars are preferred. However, also wild types of the plants are used as fodder. In these cases, the spines need to be removed from the pads to avoid damage to the animals. Mostly, this is achieved by burning the spines off the pads. [5]

Nutrients and phytochemicals

One benefit of Opuntia ficus-indica for human and animal consumption is an important source for wildlife . [5] Seeds contain 3-10% of protein and 6-13% of fatty acids , mainly linoleic acid . [4] [17] As the fruit contains vitamin C (containing 25-30 mg per 100g), [4] [18] it was once used to mitigate scurvy . [19] There are high levels of selenium in Opuntia . [20]

The color of the juice is due to betalans , ( betanin and indicaxanthin ). [21] The plant also contains flavonoids , such as quercetin , isorhamnetin [22] and kaempferol . [23]


DNA analysis indicated O. ficus-indica was domesticated from Opuntia species native to central Mexico. [3] The Codex Mendoza , and other early sources show Opuntia cladodes , as well as cochineal dye (qui needs cultivated Opuntia ) in Aztec tribute rolls. citation needed ] The plant spread to many parts of the Americas in pre-Columbian times, and since Columbus, have spread to many parts of the world, especially the Mediterranean, where they have become naturalized.


  1. ^ Jump up to:b “Opuntia ficus-indica” . Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) . Agricultural Research Service(ARS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) . Retrieved 15 December 2017 .
  2. Jump up^ Baron FHA von Humboldt’s personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of Americatr. 1852 by Ross, Thomasina: “The following are Haytian words, in their real form, which have passed into the Castilian language since the end of the 15th century … Tuna”. Quoted in OED 2nd ed.
  3. ^ Jump up to:c Griffith, MP (2004). “The Origins of an Important Crop Cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica (Cactaceae): New Molecular Evidence” (pdf) . American Journal of Botany . 91 (11): 1915-1921. doi : 10.3732 / ajb.91.11.1915 . PMID  21652337 .
  4. ^ Jump up to:d Miller, L. ” Opuntia ficus-indica ” . Ecocrop, FAO . Retrieved 14 November 2015 .
  5. ^ Jump up to:c Mondragón-Jacobo and Pérez-González, C. and S. “Cactus (Opuntia spp.) As Drilling” . FAO Plant Production and Protection Paper 169 . Retrieved 14 November 2015 .
  6. Jump up^ Heuzé, V .; Tran, G. (2 October 2015). “Prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica )” . Feedipedia . INRA, CIRAD, AFZ and FAO . Retrieved 24 August 2017 .
  7. Jump up^ Paschal, JC “Nutritional Value and Prickly Pear for Beef Cattle” . Texas A & M University.
  8. ^ Jump up to:f The Houérou HN (1996). “The role of cacti (Opuntiaspp.) In erosion control, land reclamation, rehabilitation and agricultural development in the Mediterranean Basin”. Journal of Arid Environments . 33(2): 135-159. doi : 10.1006 / jare.1996.0053 .
  9. Jump up^ Neffar S., Chenchouni H., Beddiar A., ​​Redjel N. (2013). “Rehabilitation of Degraded Rangeland in Drylands by Prickly Pear (Opuntia ficus-indica L.) Plantations: Effect on Soil and Spontaneous Vegetation”. Ecologia Balkanica . 5(2).
  10. Jump up^ Nefzaoui, A., Ben Salem, H., & Inglese, P. (2001). “Opuntia-A strategic fodder and efficient tool to combat desertification in the Wana region.” Cactus, 73-89.
  11. Jump up^ Kiesling, R. (1999). “Origen, Domesticación y Distribución of Opuntia ficus-indica (Cactaceae)”. Journal of the Professional Association for Cactus Development . 3 : 50-60.
  12. Jump up^ University of South Florida. “Cactus a Natural Oil Dispersant” . USF News . Retrieved 21 June 2012 .
  13. Jump up^ “Beles”. Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: AC . Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag. 2003.
  14. Jump up^ Rothauge, Axel (25 February 2014). “Staying afloat during a drought” . The Namibian .
  15. ^ Jump up to:b Monjauze, A. & The Houérou, HN (1965). “The role of Opuntia in the North African agricultural economy.” Bulletin of the National School of Agronomy of Tunis, 8-9: 85-164.
  16. Jump up^ Russel, Felkner, CE, P. (1987). “The Prickly-pears (Opuntia spp., Cactaceae): A Source of Human and Animal Food in Semiarid Regions”. Economic Botany . 41 (3): 443-445. doi : 10.1007 / bf02859062 .
  17. Jump up^ El Kossori Radia Lamghari; Villaume Christian; El Boustani Essadiq; Sauvaire Yves; Méjean Luc (1998). “Composition of pulp, skin and seeds of prickly pears fruit (Opuntia ficus indica sp.)”. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition52 (3): 263-270. doi : 10.1023 / A: 1008000232406 .
  18. Jump up^ Tesoriere L, Butera D, Pintaudi AM, Allegra M, Livrea MA. Supplementation with pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) oxidative stress reduction in healthy humans: a comparative study with vitamin C “. Am J Clin Nutr . 80 : 391-5. PMID  15277160 .
  19. Jump up^ Carl Zimmer (December 10, 2013). “Vitamins’ Old, Old Edge” . The New York Times.
  20. Jump up^ Bañuelos, GS; Fakra, SC, Walse, SS; Marcus, MA; Yang, SI; Pickering, IJ; Pilon-Smits, EA; Freeman, JL (January 2011). Selenium Accumulation, Distribution, and Speciation in Spineless Prickly Pear Cactus: a Drought- and Salt-Tolerant, Selenium-Enriched Nutraceutical Fruit Crop for Biofortified Foods . Plant Physiology . 155 (1): 315-327. doi : 10.1104 / pp.110.162867 . PMC  3075757 . PMID  21059825 .
  21. Jump up^ Butera D, Tesoriere L, Di Gaudio F; et al. (November 2002). “Antioxidant activities of sicilian prickly pear (Opuntia ficus indica). J. Agric. Food Chem . 50 : 6895-901. doi :10.1021 / jf025696p . PMID  12405794 .
  22. Jump up^ Dok-Go Hyang, Heun Lee Kwang, Ja Hyoung Kim, Ha Lee Eun, Lee Jiyong, Song Yun Seon, Lee Yong-Ha, Jin Changbae, Lee Yong Sup, Cho Jungsook (2003). “Neuroprotective effects of antioxidative flavonoids, quercetin, (+) – dihydroquercetin, and quercetin 3-methyl ether, isolated from Opuntia ficus-indica var saboten”. Brain Research . 965 (1-2): 130-136. doi : 10.1016 / S0006-8993 (02) 04150-1 .
  23. Jump up^ Kuti Joseph O (2004). “Antioxidant compounds from Opuntia cactus pear fruit varieties”. Food Chemistry . 85 (4): 527-533. doi : 10.1016 / S0308-8146 (03) 00184-5 .