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Prickly pear

In praise of the prickly pear: Let they food be thy medicine

Thursday, January 12, 2012 by: Marsha Anderson
Tags: prickly pear, medicine, food

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(NaturalNews) The Prickly Pear cactus is a common sight in the American West and Mexico. The plant is native to Mexico but has been introduced to many other parts of the globe. In the genus Opuntia it's also know as nopales, paddle cactus, beavertail or tuna. There are about 200 species in this genus, they're all edible and most of them are palatable.

Prickly pears grow with flat, rounded pads called cladodes or platyclades that are armed with two kinds of spines: large, smooth, fixed spines and small, hairlike ones called glochids that easily detach from the plant and penetrate the skin. Native Americans would roll the fruit around in sand or dirt to wear off the glochids. Rotating the fruit and pads in the flame of a campfire or torch has also been used to remove the spines.

Medicinal uses

The same quality that make the cactus absorb and hold every last drop of water in the desert also makes them helpful in medicinal uses. The mucopolysaccharide gel in Prickly Pear flesh is strongly hydrophilic. The pads can be used as a drawing poultice for wounds and inflammation. Excess body fluids are absorbed osmotically through the skin and into the cactus. A small piece of cactus placed in the mouth against the gums works by the same principal to reduce inflammation and heal mouth sores. Cactus can soften and heal skin fissures. It has been used to stop the pain of bites and burns.

Early Americans used cactus pads as a splint by toasting off the spines, splitting the pads and tying them around a broken bone. Consuming cactus pads and fruit has been shown to be effective in reducing blood sugar in cases of diabetes. Interestingly, if blood sugar is normal eating cactus shows no change in this measurement. Cactus will lower low density (or 'lousy') cholesterol, but has no effect on high density ('healthy') cholesterol. It has also been shown to lower triglycerides. Drinking cactus juice or slurry is effective in reducing the pain of bladder inflammation but it does not affect any bacteria that might be present in an infection. The gel-like sap can be used as a hair conditioner.

It's all edible

Native Americans used the entire plant (roots, pads, flowers, fruit and seeds) for food. Cactus pads that have the spines removed can be substituted in any recipe calling for green beans. The fruits can be pressed in a press type juicer or blended either with or without the peel (spines removed) in a high speed blender to make a slurry. The slurry, juice and fillets will last for about a week in the refrigerator.

Nopales Salad

1 lb of cleaned, diced and cooked cactus pads, boil, drain and rinse (or buy one jar)
1 small onion
2 tomatoes
2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro
1 small jalapeno pepper
2 tablespoons of olive oil
juice of one lime

Chop vegetables and add all ingredients to a bowl and refrigerate for a time to give the flavors a chance to blend together.

Sources for this article include:

Edible and Useful Plants of California by Charlotte Bringle Clarke, University of California Press

Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West by Michael Moore, Museum of New Mexico Press

Healing with Plants in the American and Mexican West by Margarita Artschwager Kay, The University of Arizona Press





About the author:
Marsha Anderson practices organic gardening, plant based nutrition, and healthy living in sunny San Diego, California.

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