The Hitchcock Project for Visualizing Science

Prickly pear is also known the Opuntioid cacti or nopal and is part of a group of perennial plants that belong to the Cactaceae subfamily.

There are more than 114 nopal species grown across Central Mexico, with the Opuntia ficus indica and Opuntia matudae the most farmed.

There are around 3 million hectares dedicated to nopal production in Mexico, with the plants grown on commercial farms, private properties, and in the wild.

The cactus plant is identified by its large prickle-covered pads, vibrant blooms, and edible fruit known as tuna. It’s long been an integral part of Mexican cuisine and is used in many foundational dishes.

Here in Australia, some species are considered weeds, with the importation, sale, and distribution of certain types strictly prohibited in Tasmania. But there are two that have naturalised: Austrocylindropuntia cylindrica and Austrocylindropuntia subulata.

Growth cycle and harvest
Seeds typically germinate between the two–four-week mark and should be planted in sandy, rocky soil with good drainage. Plants require a minimum of six hours of full sun each day and will begin to form pads once a strong root system has been established; usually between one to two years.

As time passes, prickly pears develop their own unique shape, with some growing up to two feet upwards or outwards per year. It takes between three to five years for a plant to reach full maturity, with bright yellow, orange, or red flowers blooming in the warmer months before fruiting occurs.

Fruit can grow up to three inches in size, with the tuna turning from green to purple as it ripens. Once the fruit has been harvested, the plant enters a dormant period typically during winter, but nopals can be harvested at any time of year.

Flavour profile and culinary uses
Both the pads and the fruit of the prickly pear can be consumed raw or cooked. Pads are sold fresh, canned, or in bottles, with handlers carefully removing the spines by hand.

The spines and glochids can also be burned off. Nopals have a lemon-like, tart profile and are filled with a mucilaginous liquid similar to that found in okra.

The tuna is often cooked down with sugar to make jam and jelly and can also be consumed fresh, however the natural taste can be sour or bland.

Most famously, the pads are used in iconic Mexican dishes including huevos con nopales; carnes con nopales; and huevos con nopales.