Medicine of the Prickly Pear Cactus
The prickly pear cactus has enjoyed an element of popularity unlike any other plant in the herbal kingdom. Its unique
shape, form, and usage have earned it a title of distinction among other herbs.
Its long history of use is reflected in Native
American, and particularly Aztec, legends in which the prickly pear is a central figure.
The cactus forms part of the Mexican national shield that appears on the country’s flag, and in Texas the fruit has been dubbed the official state plant. Proving its
enduring popularity the prickly pear has recently made appearances in Snapple Iced Teas in the form of a prickly
pear-flavored bottled tea and in a prickly pear-flavored margarita at the Chevy’s Mexican restaurant chain.
The prickly pear cactus is unique among other plants, and even among other cacti. Very few plants in the botanical
kingdom are a vegetable, fruit, and flower all in one. The Spanish conquerors of Mexico recognized the benefits of the
prickly pear fruits, due to their vitamin C content, as a partial cure for the scurvy that plagued their sailors. The Aztec
leader Montezuma II might have been enjoying a nice hot cup of chocolate when the Spanish arrived, but there was
probably a plate of prickly pear pads sitting in one of his many kitchens, waiting to be served.
The prickly pear has persisted as a staple food in the diets of those native to the southwestern portion of the United States and those settled throughout
Central and South America and even in parts of Europe and the Middle East.
The driving force behind the prickly pear’s use and popularity is its ability to function as both food and medicine.
Because of the cactus’s striking ability to thrive in some of the most harsh desert habitats, it has represented to desert
inhabitants, especially those in the southwestern United States and Central America, an alternative to death in an often brutal
But the prickly pear was not only valued as a reliable source of food and drink; it was also treasured for its
health benefits. At a time when antibiotics like penicillin and vaccinations did not exist, the cactus was an herbal prescription
for the sick and healthy alike. Current scientific research is validating what ancestral cultures learned about the prickly
pear: It is a healer.
Prickly Pear Sauce Recipe
Inspired by Rick Bayles Mexican Kitchen by Rick Bayles (Scribner, 1996)
This deep red, bright tasting sauce is so fresh and perky, it will liven up anything you put it on. Try it as a sweet accent to savory dishes, like spicy grilled chicken, top off a dessert of poached pears or ice cream with it, try it on waffles, or (yum) use it to cheer up a margarita!
2 1/2 pounds (about 16) fresh prickly pears
1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon orange liqueur (optional)
1. Trim both ends of the prickly pears, then make a 1/2-inch deep cut down the side of each one. Be careful of prickers, and peel off the rind, starting from where you made the cut. If the fruit is ripe, the thick rind will easily peel away from the central core.
2. Coursely chop the peeled prickly pears, puree in a food processor or blender, then press through a fine strainer into a bowl. There should be about 3 cups.
3. In a medium-size saucepan, combine 2 cups of the puree with 1/3 cup honey, and simmer rapidly over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until reduced to 1 cup, then let cool.
4. In a small bowl, stir the uncooked puree with the cooked. Taste and season with lime juice, orange liqueur and additional honey if desired.
5. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze.
Adapted from Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine by Ran Knishinsky (Healing Arts Press, 2004).