How to Prepare and Eat Prickly Pear Cactus


Also Called

The Prickly Pear

Cacti are an incredibly fascinating group of succulents. Often thought of as annoying, tough, spiny and menacing they are not automatically thought of as a nutritious food source, but they most certainly are.

With over 1,000 different species of cacti, they range from a few inches in height to over 100 ft tall. For more interesting facts on cacti check out Characteristics of Cacti plants.

I have always had the varieties of cacti that are for indoor use and love them. Intrigued by their shapes, stems, flowers and even their spines.

I find it hard to resist purchasing a new one every so often to add to my collection. My partner on the other hand detests them and puts up with them as long as he has nothing to do with them!

Luckily for him they are not native to Ireland but they are, however native in southern Italy where we will be moving to. In fact there are a number of large prickly pear cacti beside our property which is something I at least look forward to!

The flower of the Opuntia ficus-indica species of prickly pear is edible.
The flower of the Opuntia ficus-indica species of prickly pear is edible. | Source
If driving through desert or arid regions, keep an eye out for the prickly pear.
If driving through desert or arid regions, keep an eye out for the prickly pear. | Source

Native to the Western hemisphere, this cactus fruit is a common sight in arid or semi-arid regions of the world particularly in Mexico, The Americas, The Mediterranean, Australia and Africa.

The prickly pear cactus is the only member in the Opuntia genus of cacti and there are over 200 different species. They have three striking features.

They are easily identified by their large paddle like shaped leaves, also known as nopales which are in fact flattened stems.

Another feature of prickly pears is their fruit or tunas which vary in color from yellowy-green to deep magenta.

The third and most attractive feature is their flowers which are also edible. They vary in color between yellow, orange, red to mauve.

The fruit varies in size, from a small plum to a large kiwi fruit and both stems and fruit are widely eaten and used in different ways.


The cactus fruit or tuna may be yellow, green or red to purplish. The deeper the color the sweeter the fruit.
The cactus fruit or tuna may be yellow, green or red to purplish. The deeper the color the sweeter the fruit. | Source

More Surprising Edible Plants

A few more ingredients that are extremely beneficial you may be surprised by are

Fuchsia FruitDid you know Fuchsia flowers have fruit that is edible?

Rambutan FruitA tropical fruit similar to a Lychee.

Nettle Plant Tonic RecipeNettles do much more than sting you.

Benefits of Prickly Pear Cactus (Pads and Fruit)

  • *Helps Lower Cholesterol
  • *Type 2 Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular System
  • Obesity
  • *Prevents Hangovers
  • Contains Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Iron and Amino Acids.
  • Vitamin A, C
  • High in Fiber
  • Rich in Carotenoids
  • Anti-Inflammatory Properties
  • Antiviral Properties
  • Rich in Antioxidants

Possible Side Effects

When introducing a new ingredient into our diet, easing into it is advisable. Some side effects associated with prickly pear include nausea, mild diarrhea, increased stool volume, increased stool frequency, headaches and a fullness of the stomach.

NB - Do not take prickly pear if pregnant or breast-feeding or if undergoing surgery within the next 2-3 weeks.

If you are taking medication, always seek medical advice when considering adding this food or any unusual ingredient into your diet.

* Research is still being done into these claims.

Don't forget to wear gloves when harvesting the stem.
Don't forget to wear gloves when harvesting the stem. | Source

Nopal Market

buying nopal cactus pads is best to do before harvesting cactus yourself.
buying nopal cactus pads is best to do before harvesting cactus yourself. | Source

The Pads or Stems

The flat green stems or pads are eaten like a vegetable. Thick and fleshy they are widely used in Mexico as a staple food in the diet.

When cooked they have a taste comparable to green beans and a texture similar to okra. The pads are often sold whole or cut up in strips or cubes and bagged for convenience.

If you fancy harvesting your own stems from the wild or your backyard, no problem but you need to make sure you follow a few pointers.

Harvesting Prickly Pear Stems

  • Wear thick gloves or use a long tongs as the spines are extremely irritating if lodged in the skin.
  • Pick young stems that are approximately the size of an adult hand and ½ inch thick. Bright green and firm ones, harvested in early spring will be the most flavorful, succulent and have fewer spines.
  • Thicker, older pads have a thicker sap which many people find have an unpleasant taste.
  • Cut the nopales with a sharp paring knife or twist off, leave an inch of stem behind for it to re-sprout.
  • Cutting is preferable however as it is less stressful on the plant and helps keep the cactus plant healthy.
  • Pop them into a large plastic container or even wrap in newspaper if harvesting in the garden. You need to remove the spines and glochids as soon as possible.

Nopales Cortados

Nopales cut for the salad. very similar taste to green beans when cooked.
Nopales cut for the salad. very similar taste to green beans when cooked. | Source

Prickly Pear Pad Tomato Soup

How to Prepare Pads

  • Wearing gloves, peel the pads with a potato peeler to remove all the spines and rinse thoroughly.
  • Go over them to double check all spines are removed. Apart from the large spine there are also small, hard to see small ones called glochids.
  • The glochids are particularly hard to remove if embedded in the skin so do take care. Some species of prickly pear may not have spines but they will all have glochids.
  • Another method of preparing the pads is to burn off the spines and glochids with a blow-torch or over a flame using the tongs.
  • Peel all around the outside edge of the stems.
  • Depending on how you are using this vegetable will determine whether you leave whole, in strips, or cubes.
  • If not using immediately the fresh stems may be stored in the fridge. Wrap them tightly in Clingfilm or plastic wrap and store up to 2 weeks.
  • When cutting the stems, a tip is to wipe the knife after each cut on kitchen paper. There may be glochids still present.

Salsa para la Ensalada de Nopales

 Salsa for the cactus salad.
Salsa for the cactus salad. | Source

Culinary Uses of Cactus Pads Include

  • Cactus tortillas
  • Stews
  • Salads
  • Pickled in brine
  • Breads
  • Omletes
  • Casseroles

Ensalada de Nopales

Nopales salad is tasty and nutrutious.
Nopales salad is tasty and nutrutious. | Source

Hojas de Nopales

cooked cactus leaves.
cooked cactus leaves. | Source

How to Eat Pads

The pads or nopales may be boiled, grilled or combined with different ingredients in a variety of healthy nutritious dishes. Here are a few suggestions-

Boiling - When boiling the pads, you may have to change the water and re-boil a few times. The sap that comes from the pad may be thick. As a guide, the thicker the pad, the thicker the sap. The pads are then drained off and rinsed in cold water. Why not make up an authentic Mexican salad using chopped onions, cilantros, jalapenos peppers, diced tomatoes and a squeeze of lime juice, salt and pepper.

Grilling - If grilling the pads, season well with salt and pepper. The pads are ready when they are slightly brown in color and tender to the touch. They could also be seasoned with a little olive oil, squeeze of lime juice and a little salt.

Cooked nopales may be added into so many dishes. Why not try mixing them into casseroles and stews. A hearty vegetable soup is a good option as is a summer salad or even just have them alone, your choice is yours with this versatile, nutritious vegetable!


  • If it is your first time trying cactus pads, buy them rather than harvesting your own.
  • You may also sauté or steam the pads if you prefer.
  • Try Elmer’s glue for removing any spines or glochids. Apply the glue over the spines and allow dry until a “skin” forms. The spines lift easily when you peel off the glue. This will also work for any spines embedded from the cactus fruit and works for splinters. If you don’t have the glue, try using duct tape or masking tape instead.

Cosmetic Uses for Prickly Pear

  • Shampoos
  • Soaps
  • Skin Oils
  • Skin cream
  • Face Masks
  • Fragrance
  • Lip Balms

Cactus Fruit

The prickly pear fruit or tunas are oval and vary in size and color. They have an outer slightly tough skin and a fleshy, juicy pulp.

They also contain seeds which are edible though many people prefer to remove these. Whilst they vary in color, the deep reds to purplish ones tend to be the sweetest ones.

In Mexico however, the white tunas are the most popular to eat even though they are less sweet. The name is a bit misleading too as they are in fact green!

As with the stems, the fruit will have glochids. The store-bought prickly pear fruit should be spine free and be safe to handle without gloves. If unprocessed they will need to be thoroughly washed and cleaned before handling them, so always use gloves and a tongs (long BBQ style tongs are perfect).

Culinary Uses:

  • Breads
  • Jellies
  • Jams
  • Syrup
  • Candy
  • Juices
  • Smoothies
  • Yogurts
  • Cactus covered almonds and chocolates

Would you eat cactus fruit?

  • No definitely not for me.
  • Yes, I have eaten it before and love it.
  • I tried it before but wasn't crazy about it.
  • Would love to try it!
See results without voting

Harvesting Fruit

When harvesting your own fruit, remember to wear gloves or use a long tongs. While all cactus fruit is edible not all will be necessarily ripe so look for the darker skinned tunas before they start to wrinkle. They detach pretty easily but use a knife if needed.

Place them in a container, colander or wrap in newspaper or even a few plastic bags, depending on where you are collecting them from.

Preparing Fruit

  • Using a tongs, place the fruit 5-6 at a time in a colander and rinse gently under cold water by swirling around. This will remove all the hard to see glochid spines.
  • Keep doing this for 3-4 minutes taking care not to bruise the delicate fruit.
  • When full satisfied, remove the pears from the colander and pat dry.
  • With a sharp kitchen knife, slice off the top and the bottom of the fruit.
  • Cut the fruit lengthwise just through the skin (similar to peeling an orange) and make a slit. Use the knife to help lever off the skin and peel off the thick skin.

Eating the Cactus Fruit

The fruit is delicious eaten as is, sliced, chopped or added into a variety of dishes such as sorbets and jam or made into drinks such as a prickly pear juice, smoothie or wine. Refreshing and cooling, this fruit is definitely one to try if you have not done so yet.

It is a bit of a cross between a kiwi fruit and a watermelon, in my opinion considering taste and texture. I prefer to either remove the seeds completely or spit out if eating the fruit whole (as you might with a slice of watermelon).

Prickly Pear Jam

simply served with cream cheese on homemade bread.
simply served with cream cheese on homemade bread. | Source

Comments 37 comments

Anamika S profile image

Anamika S 3 years ago from Mumbai - Maharashtra, India

Before seeing this Hub, I had no idea that Cactus is an edible plant. Good Hub, voted up!

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi Anamika,

Lovely to have you visit here! Yes, prickly pear cactus is edible and very versatile. Hope you get to try it out now! Thanks so much for the votes!!

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 3 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

What a detailed and generous hub, full of great information. When I lived up a mountain in Andalucia prickly pear were everywhere. Being a dreamer I only ever sketched and painted them and watched the lizards run through the spikey pads. A neighbour down the track though was more practical and one year made loads of prickly pear jam - chumbo jam!! It was lovely. I still have my sketches!

I'll vote for this interesting hub.

livingsta profile image

livingsta 3 years ago from United Kingdom

Wow, never knew these were edible. I am a cactus lover too. Had a few varieties in my garden in India. I haven't seen these in the markets either, for sale as edible food. Thank you for sharing this hub.

Voted up, pinning and sharing!

unknown spy profile image

unknown spy 3 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

great hub! i never tasted a prickly pear cactus recipe before.

lemonkerdz profile image

lemonkerdz 3 years ago from TRUJILLO, PERU

interesting hub, these prickly pears are all over the place at the moment in peru since they are in season. I'm not sure i would do the cooking using the cactus but the jam is a great idea, never thought of that.


iguidenetwork profile image

iguidenetwork 3 years ago from Austin, TX

Isn't it amazing at what Mother Nature has given to us? Even a thorny plant gives us food and nourishment, it would be a good alternative to many popularly-marketed vegetables and fruits around. Since cacti are easy to grow because they need little water or care compared to other garden plants, it's really a big blessing.

Voted up useful, aswesome. :)

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi chef!

Cool to see you! Love your story you included. it reminds me how my mum used to sketch and paint out in nature too. A great gift you have. Prickly pear are one of those plants that could sustain you if stuck out in arid or desert areas with no food or water. It is amazing finding all these unusual edibles in the wild that are so useful. Keep on sketching my friend! Appreciate the votes and thumbs up!!

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi livingsta,

Thanks for having the interest here and for commenting. Hopefully you will find them available to try in your area. The stems and fruit are edible and used in different ways which I find so interesting. Thanks so much for votes, sharing and pin!!

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi unknown spy,

Cheers for the support here, hope you get to try these wonder plants sometime!

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi lemonkerdz,

Many thanks for stopping by! These would be great for you to try out in Peru! I favor the fruits I have to say as "green beans" are one of the few vegetables I am not a fan of! Having said that, the pads are worth trying out if you have them in abundance and they are easily harvested for you. The fruit in juices and smoothies is great chilled for a cooling drink during hot sunny summer days. Many thanks for commenting and interest here!!

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi iguidenetwork,

Appreciate your visit and comments! You are so right, mother nature truly does deliver some incredible and fascinating things. Cacti are one of those wonders and prickly pear should be more widely introduced to diets. They are so popular in Mexico there is an annual Expo event there with all types of products and foods on show from suppliers and manufacturers, it is extraordinary!! Cheers for the votes, very much appreciated! :-)

prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 3 years ago from malang-indonesia

Beautiful and I love this hub very much. The photos you included are the best. Thanks for writing and share with us. Voted up!


Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi prasetio,

So grateful to see you here! Glad you enjoyed this and hope you found useful. Many thanks for your warm comments and votes, always a delight to see you Prasetio!!

Gail Meyers profile image

Gail Meyers 3 years ago from United States

I had no idea people eat these! I would highly recommend following the suggestion of wearing heavy gloves. For some reason I grabbed one of these babies in some store when I was a young kid. To this day, I cringe when I see a cactus even though they are beautiful. I would never have thought of the fruit of a cactus being edible cactus fruit (in that sense of the word). Voted up and shared.

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi Gail,

Lovely to have you here! Yes, it is amazing these plants often the cause of pain from the spines is edible. The prickly pear variety is so versatile too with the stem, fruit and flower used. Even the sap in the pads is used in cosmetics. For some this plant grows in abundance around them, what a natural free source of goodies they have! Thanks so much for taking the time and interest to comment, appreciate your votes and shares!

vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 3 years ago from Peru, South America

It's been a while since I've had nopales. In Peru, the cactus pads are given to cattle once the spines are removed. I could easily get my hands on some, though, and try your recipe. They're very popular in Mexico!

As for the fruit or tuna, I just ate some yesterday (seeds and all). The red tuna is sweeter, as you mention, but in Peru the white is also more popular. I think it's because they have a crisper texture than the red. I actually did prepare a hub about prickly pear syrup, but never published it. You've inspired me--I'll have to think about reworking and publishing it. Another great Hub. Voted up and shared!

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi vespa,

How great if you could publish that!! Would love to have that in my collection for Italy as prickly pear is everywhere and easily bought at markets. I have never had the white variety so it's interesting to see in Peru it too is very popular like in Mexico. Thanks so much for your great input here, as always you have a wealth of info I love hearing!

Appreciate your votes and share, Cheers Vespa!

Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

Mmmm interesting and useful !!!What a great share and I vote up plus share.

Have a wonderful day.


Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi Eddy,

Apologies, I did reply and it seemed to take a wobbler in mid stream so did not get it replied to properly! Thanks so much for your constant support this side of the Irish Sea, great to have you visit as always!

Much appreciate your votes and share here, maybe you will get to try cactus fruit, it is gorgeous!!

Amadaun profile image

Amadaun 3 years ago

This is something I always wanted to try when I was a kid! It resulted in a lot of prickle wounds while exploring the cacti around my grandmother's house.

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi Amadaun,

Thanks for commenting, the spines are really painful but if you go picking them now just wear good thick gloves to prevent further incidents. Hope you get to enjoy them!

Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

Glimmer Twin Fan 3 years ago

We were watching a cooking show the other night and one of the ingredients was this prickly pear. My daughter was fascinated and thought it would be fun to try this. I'm definitely showing her this hub.

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author


How timely, a cookery program showing the Prickly Pear It was on a cookery show (Australian masterchef) I saw the pad pr stem being cooked for the first time and was fascinated. Hopefully you will be able to get some of this fruit together and try it out! Thanks so much for your input, love hearing this kind of info!

followthestray profile image

followthestray 3 years ago from New York

When I first started reading I couldn't believe that you could eat cacti, but then I realized that I have actually had cactus fruit before when I was abroad in Italy. They called it Fica d'India (or something like that--I never had to spell it haha)--which translates to Indian Fig, as you mentioned in the beginning. It really is super delicious! Totally worth the "danger" of getting pricked haha...

I really want to try that jam!

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi Sam,

Many thanks for reading and for your comments. The prickly pear are definitely found in Italy, that's for sure so it is cool you ate them there. Hope you get to make the jam for a delicious change. Appreciate your input as always!

sallybea profile image

sallybea 3 years ago from Norfolk

Very popular in Africa too - have to say I never had the courage to tackle though prickles when I lived there!!

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi Sally,

Thanks for your comments on the prickly pear. Hopefully you may get the chance to tackle again on your travels or try it at the supermarket or market, they are delicious!!

rajan jolly profile image

rajan jolly 3 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

Suzie, that cactus and its fruits were edible, is news to me. This information was entirely new to me and I learnt a great deal. The jam looks so good. The fruits too look delicious in the photos.

Thanks for sharing such interesting information.

Voted up, useful, interesting and shared.

torrilynn profile image

torrilynn 3 years ago

Hi Suzie,

i didn't know that you could actually eat cactus

thanks for the information and for a well written hub

Voted up and shared.

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi Rajan,

Many thanks for your visit and welcome support. The cactus fruit and pad are so nutritious I am surprised you were not familiar with it. Glad you picked up some new information here. Many thanks for your votes and share, appreciate them greatly.

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi torrilynn,

Great to see you again, always a pleasure! many thanks for your lovely comments which are really nice to hear. Appreciate you taking time to vote, share and read, cheers!!

azrestoexp profile image

azrestoexp 3 years ago

What a WONDERFUL hub. So informative. Live in the Arizona desert and there are prickly pear cactus everywhere. Have never given them a try, that will have to change! :O)

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi azrestoexp,

Lovely to receive your comments again, so good to know you are among the prickly pear so have no excuse now! Enjoy going pear hunting and i am sure you will be glad you did! Appreciate you stopping by!!

tastiger04 profile image

tastiger04 3 years ago

The prickly pear is native to the area I live in yet I have never ate one, or even tried to prepare one! I see them in the grocery store, maybe I ought to try it out :)

Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland Author

Hi tastiger,

Definitely give them a try, you will be pleasantly surprised! We don't get them here but we have them growing in Puglia so what a bonus that is although my partner is not a fan of cacti in general so will have to surprise him with this fruit and then tell him what it is, it may sway him! Cheers for comment, much appreciate your interest!

Judith Rizzo profile image

Judith Rizzo 2 years ago from Phoenix ~ The Valley of the Sun

Excellent hub! Thank you for getting the word out about this marvelous plant. I spent many wonderful hours out of the desert harvesting the pads and the fruits with my grandma, many years ago when Phoenix and Valley still had desert.

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