The Nopal cactus plant is a vegetable, and the pads are edible. Interestingly, the cactus produces a fruit that is also edible. The plant also produces a beautiful flower. Imagine a plant that is both a fruit and a vegetable and that blossoms a flower as well!! Nopal grows upwards of 15 feet tall and will flower in 3 different hybrids of red, yellow, and pink—it truly is a beautiful site to see! The fruit is referred to as “nopal” in Mexico, and “tuna” in South America. It is called the “prickly pear” cactus because of the shape of the fruit and, well, because the thorny projections make it prickly! Other common names include Indian fig, nopales, and beles. The multitude of names often refers to the part of the plant being consumed, e.g. the pads or the fruit. The Latin name for the genus is Opuntia, and there are numerous species. The most commonly farmed species is Opuntia ficus-indica.
Like all true cactus species, prickly pear cacti are native to the Western hemisphere only; however they have been introduced to other areas in the world. “It is thought the species accompanied Christopher Columbus on his return journey to Lisbon in 1493.” Also, “due to the vitamin C content, Opuntia fruits, like citrus, were sometimes stocked on ships set for long voyages to prevent scurvy.” There is evidence to suggest it was a staple in the diet of natives at least 6000 years ago, and probably much earlier than that!! Opuntia ficus-indica is native to Mexico and has been an invaluable resource for the people of Mesoamerica (a region including parts of Mexico and Central America, formerly inhabited by various ancient and pre-Columbian Indian civilizations) for countless years.
This plant has been used for just about anything you can think of: canteens for water, feed for herds of animals, huevos con nopales (eggs with nopal), jellies, jams, vegetables, and desserts. It has been used as fencing for cattle and in dye production, and has been investigated for water purification systems. The Mexican coat of arms even depicts a Mexican golden eagle perched on an Opuntia cactus grasping a rattlesnake. The Nopal cactus has been the state plant of Texas since 1995. What a magnificently beautiful plant!