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Medicine of the Prickly Pear Cactus

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
environment.

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.

Read more: Health, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Natural Remedies, , , , ,

Adapted from Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine by Ran Knishinsky (Healing Arts Press, 2004).

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Annie B. Bond

Annie is a renowned expert in non-toxic and green living. She was named one of the top 20 environmental leaders by Body and Soul Magazine and "the foremost expert on green living." - Body & Soul Magazine, 2009. Learn Annie's latest eco-friendly news on anniebbond.com, a website dedicated to healthy and green living.

14 comments

+ add your own
11:44AM PST on Feb 4, 2011

Sounds good

1:26PM PST on Dec 14, 2009

I ate Prickly Pears as a kid in central California and my grandmother would make a wonderful jam from the fruit. She also made a poltice from the inner part of the pads for treatment of infections and boils.

9:06AM PST on Dec 14, 2009

For those who live in the northern Midwest, they are sold in the Produce section at a grocery store called Woodman's in La Crosse (Onalaska), Wisconsin. There are other Woodman's stores throughout Minnesota and northern Illinois--Janesville, Madison, Kenosha, Green Bay, Beloit, Rockford, Appleton, and Carpentersville and North Aurora, Illinois.

1:36PM PDT on Apr 15, 2009

I am another South African missing Prickly Pears. They grew on our farm in the Transvaal Lowveld when I was a child. Living in Canada, I miss all the fruit & vegetables so readily available in South Africa.

1:31PM PDT on Apr 15, 2009

I'm another South African missing prickly pears, They grew wild on our farm in the Transvaal Lowveld when I was a child. Now living in Canada, there is so much I miss in the way of fruit & vegetables over here.

7:48AM PDT on Apr 15, 2009

What an interesting article and informative, too. I also grew up in South Africa and we also ate them straight from the plants - they are delicious when refrigerated and then eaten during the hot weather. Wonderfully, I've been thinking about them recently and wishing to have some! I live in Sweden now - oh well we are going to S. Africa on holiday in July - maybe I'll be able to lay my hands on some! My mouth waters at the thought!

7:30AM PDT on Apr 15, 2009

I remember our family eating prickly pears picked straight from the cactus, as a child in South Africa. This plant and its fruit is endemic to many regions of Africa. And we find them also growing like triffids in many areas in Spain, there again picking, peeling and eating straight from the cactus!! There really is nothing to beat its unique flavour - how wonderful now to know that it does also have medicinal properties - and what a history!!!

3:07PM PDT on Aug 11, 2008

Stripped of the spikes and sliced....then soaked a couple of days makes a drink that is used to fight diabetes in central Ca.

10:52PM PDT on Jul 20, 2008

I have never tried it but it sounds so good! I had no idea of all its uses. Thanks for the enlightening article.

11:19AM PDT on Jul 11, 2008

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.

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