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Photo: Andreana Bitsis

The Mythic Nopal Cactus Is Our New Favorite Edible Green

Though it’s often used in high-end beauty products to combat aging, prickly pear still grows as a weed in much of the Southwest, materializing unexpectedly along roadsides and in front yards. Its spiny pads make it difficult to eradicate and so it is foten left mostly to itself, to grow as and where ever it wishes. Today, Prickly Pear– also known as Nopal– can be found across deserts in the Southwest, Mexico, and South America– and it also grows invasively in Australia, the Indo-Pacific, and East Africa.

The term “prickly pear” is something of a misnomer, as it refers to both the plant itself, and the plant’s fruit. In Spanish, nopal refers to the plant in general, while cladodes identifies the pads of the plant–green, flat, and with thin white spikes. Prickly pear (tuna in Spanish) specifically invokes the rounded fruit, which can be yellow, red, or purple, and bears the same thin white spikes. The term ‘prickly pear’ in English additionally refers to a number of species within the Opuntia genus. In general, when people refer to prickly pear, they are speaking of the plant officially known as Indian fig opuntia.

prickly pear

Photo: Andreana Bitsis

In Náhuatl (the Aztec language), the word for nopal translates to “fruit of the earth,” a testament to the many practical uses the Aztecs found for it. Nopal was one of the original super fruits; the Aztecs boiled the juice of its pads to cure fevers, used its slime as lip balm, its pulp to remedy diarrhea, its spines to combat infections, and its fruit to lessen anger. Symbolically, the redness of the fruits was likened to the hearts of warriors–people believed eating them would imbue them with strength and power.

Nopal Green Smoothie

View Recipe

Nopal Green Smoothie

10 mins
Ingredients
  • 1 pad of nopal cactus
  • 1.5 cups cubed pineapple
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 5 ice cubes
  • squeeze of lime (optional)
Preparation
1.

Wash and trim the edges of the cactus pad. Using the edge of a spoon, scrape against the spines to remove them.

2.

Slice the cactus into 1/2″ strips.

3.

Add all ingredients to the blender (ice last) and blend on high for 30 seconds, or until desired consistency is achieved. Add additional ice or orange juice to thin.

(Read our entire Nopal Green Smoothie story here.)

The nopal was so beloved (then, just as it is today) that one of the most famous cities in the Aztec Empire– Tenochtitlán, the religious center of the Aztec Empire and the site of its final demise at the hands of the Spanish– was named “prickly pear on a rock.” According to legend, the city was built after an Aztec priest spotted an eagle perched on a nopal plant, carrying a snake in its mouth. The priest hurried back to tell the nearby camp of settlers of the promising portent, bringing everyone back with him to see the eagle. As they watched, the cactus beneath the eagle grew into an island–eventually becoming Tenochtitlán, where they would settle. The image of the eagle carrying a snake, its golden talons perched on a nopal growing from a rock, can now be found on the Mexican coat of arms.

prickly pear cactus

Photo: Andreana Bitsis

Today, modern science has measured and quantified the medical power of nopal, identifying its ability to aid in treating hypoglukemia, diabetes, high blood cholesterol, and obesity. In addition to its medicinal properties, the plant and fruit are used as cattle feed (it is believed this makes their butter taste better), to flavor pulque (an alcoholic drink), and its rotted juice is even added to plaster to make earthen walls more water resistant. Recent experiments have also discovered a more futuristic incarnation for nopal, including the finding that prickly pear dye can be used in holographic recording materials.

In addition to the value found in the plant itself, the cochineal– an insect long used to color food and makeup– lives almost exclusively on the pads of the nopal. According to Aztec legend, two gods fought so violently for possession of the nopal (its worth being renowned not just among mortals), that they went so far as to shed one another’s blood. As the divine drops fell on the nopal, they turned into the cochineal, giving the bug its rich, startlingly bright color.

prickly pear cactus

Photo: Andreana Bitsis

Rich in history, mythology, and practical uses, the nopal’s enduring popularity is a testament to its versatility. It can be eaten raw, sautéed, pickled, grilled– it’s even used as a pizza topping. Below is our favorite way to prepare nopal– easy, and in a form Lil’ Sprouts are sure to enjoy (there is an undeniable cache in drinking a cactus smoothie). Despite its antagonistic appearance (the spines are quite sharp, and should be treated with care), nopal is a easy ingredient to incorporate, one sure to become a familiar and welcome kitchen guest.

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