Are prickly pear leaves edible?

Asked February 27, 2013, 7:35 AM EST

Are the leaves (pads) of the common Texas prickly pear edible?

Thanks!

Eric

Dallas County Texas

1 Response

Eric: In Texas we have 19 to 25 species of Opuntia or prickly pear depending on what current taxonomy resource you look at. Each of these prickly pear species is characterized by having a modified stem that is called a pad, a cladophyll or joint. These species of prickly pear are native to Texas and occupy the land as a great resource for food for humans and many wildlife species. The prickly pear pads in Mexico are harvested, de-thorned, sliced and pickled. Today you can find prickly pear in the grocery store for sale as green pads in the produce section or pickled in a jar as a product called "nopalitos". The fruit of the prickly pear is also often found for sale and the fruit is called a "tuna".

In the book "Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines of the Southwest" (1960, University of Texas Press, Austin and London), the author Robert A. Vines states on page 777 that the "The Indians and Mexican people formerly used the plant extensively for food. The fruits may be eaten raw or made into a preserve. The joints, when young and tender, are cooked and served with dressing and pepper, and are also made into candy. Syrup is made by boiling the ripe fruit and straining off the seed. The boiled and fermented juice is known as "Colonche". A thick paste made by blining down the juice is known as "melcocha". Queso de tuna (tuna cheese) is prepared from a pulp of the fruit seed. After evaporation, it is made into small cheeselike pieces. The Indians also believe that a tea made from the fruit will cure ailments caused by gallstones. Commerical alcohol has been made from the sap. The tender young joints are sometimes used as poultices to reduce inflammation. Juice of the joints is boled with tallow in candlemaking to amke the candles hard. The joints are made edible to cattle by burning off the spines. A number of animals and birds feed on the fruit. According to folklore, the coyote brushes the spines off the fruit with his tail before eating it."

Today, we know that the production, harvesting and consumption of prickly pear in Mexico as a human food and fodder for livestock accounts for 2% of the Mexican gross national product (GNP). So yes, prickly pear pads or cladophylls are eaten by humans.

Lastly, the leaves of the prickly pear plants are very small, up to 6 mm long, appear in the spring and last for only about 6 weeks. Most of what we see of prickly pear is the joints, pads or cladophylls, whichever name you would like to use.

Texas Nopal or Texas prickly pear is "Opuntia lindheimeri". It is one of the most abundant prickly pear species in the state.

Please visit our Extension Ecosystem Science and Management web site (http://essmextension.tamu.edu) or the AgriLife Extension bookstore (http://agrilifebookstore.org) and look for an Extension publication by Dr. C. Wayne Hanselka titled "Prickly Pear: Friend or Foe?" for more information on this unique group of plants.

I hope this information will be of value to you and help to answer your question. If we can be of further assistance, please contact eXtension again.

Barron S. Rector, Associate Professor and Extension Range Specialist
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
Ecosystem Science and Management Department

BSR/