There are about twelve species of Prickly Pear cactus representing the Cactaceae family in the desert areas of N.America.
All of the Prickly Pear cactus have altered branches or stems called ‘pads’ which have a leaf like appearance, but in fact are areas which provide photosynthesis, water storage and flower production.
Most Prickly Pear cactus like well drained soil on rocky flats or slopes. Others like mountain forest environments.
The cactus varies in height from 1-7 feet depending upon the variety, the ‘pads’ grow in many differing widths, shapes, color and length. They produce flowers which even within the same variety can be either purple, red or yellow in color.
The fruits from the Prickly Pear are edible and often sold carrying the name ‘Tuna’. The ‘pads’ can also be eaten as a vegetable when properly cooked, and are often sold bearing the name ‘Nopalito’
This cactus, whilst having low toxicity can be very irritating to the skin on contact, but there is much interest being shown with respect to its medicinal properties. The juices obtained from the fruit and ‘pads’ of the plant have been shown to stabilize blood sugar content, and lower the amount of insulin required for diabetics.
Further studies have found that the pectin contained in the cactus when pulped, tends to lower the level of adverse cholesterol in the blood, whilst maintaining healthy levels of good cholesterol, thus providing another method of treating ‘high’ blood cholesterol