Prickly pear – proven benefits and uses

The scientific name of the prickly pear is Opuntia cochinillifera (Linn.) Mill. It is also know as Cochineal cactus, Cochineal nopal cactus, Velvet opuntia, and Wooly joint prickly pear.

Other names include

AZTEC: Nopal nochetzli.
CHINESE: Yan zhi xian ren zhang, Xian ren zhang, Wu ci xian ren zhang, Rou zhang, Yan zhi zhang.
FRENCH: Cochenillier, Raquette Espagnole.
NORWEGIAN: Cochenillekaktus.
PORTUGUESE: Cacto-De-Cochonilha, Palma, Palma-De-Engorda, Palma-Doce, Palma-Miuda, Palmatória.
SPANISH: Nopal Chamacuero, Nopal De Cochinilla, Nopal De La Cochinilla.

Prickly pear is a cactaceous, fleshy, erect. branched, leafless plant, 1 to 3 meters high. Stems are stout, with thick joints, oblong-ovate, green, fleshy, compressed, 15 to 25 centimeters long, with small, scattered, white cushion-like bodies which are unarmed or may bear small spines. Calyx is green. fleshy, oblong-ovoid, 3 to 8.5 centimeters long. Corolla is red, about 2.5 centimeters long. Fruit is ovoid, about 3.5 centimeters long, fleshy and purplish.


Medicinal Properties

– Tonic, refreshing, antihelmintic.

– Considered anti-inflammatory, analgesic, stomach-protective.

Parts used


Edibility / Nutrition

– Both fruit and pads are edible after removing the spines.

– Avoid the spine and any cactus part with white sap.

– Fruit can be eaten raw or cooked and has a raspberry like flavor.

– Thornless pads are peeled, eaten raw, cooked, or added to salads.

– Pads are rich in vitamin A

Folkloric traditional remedies and use of prickly pear

• In Mexico, joints applied as poultices to relieve articular rheumatism, erysipelas, earaches and toothaches.

• In India, used for pain and inflammation.

• Used for menopause and hot flashes.

• In Tobago and Trinidad, used for scorpion and snake bites, diabetes, hypertension, kidney and urinary problems.

• In Mexico, joints are applied as poultices for rheumatism, erysipelas, ophthalmia, earaches and toothaches.

• Split pads are emollient, used as poultices for rheumatism; backed for ulcers, gout and wounds. Also, used for warts, kidney problems, measles, and as vermifuge for gastrointestinal parasites.

• In the Guianas, stem “pads” are applied to treat fungal skin infections, fever, and as shampoo for fine, delicate hair. Roasted branches are sliced and applied as poultice to relieve pain, swelling, and localized burning from filaria. Sap used for baby’s colds and wheezing. Grated stems mixed with soft grease and corn meal warmed and applied externally for chest colds and fever associated with pneumonia. Leaves used for spleen problems.

• In Guatemala, leaf infusion used for treatment of diabetes.

Others uses
• Veterinary: In Trinidad and Tobago, used in ethnoveterinary medicine for joint problems in horses, applied directly to the injured area. For anhydrosis, rachette joints are pounded up and put in water, and given to horses to drink to induce sweating and reduce the temperature. Rachette (N. cochenillifera) also used in combination with glycerine and Epsom salts to treat inflammation.

• New Age drink: In the unending search for longevity through the all-natural and herbal, post-Noni juice and post-Mangostan, the new drink in the herbal-block, ready to drink, thorn-free, spine-free – Sonoran Bloom Nopalea.

Scientific proven studies on prickly pear

Diabetes Studies / Increase Blood Glucose Effect:

Studies have failed to find support for its traditional use in the treatment of diabetes. Moreover, in one study, there was even an increase in baseline blood glucose levels. An oral glucose tolerance test showed the stems of NC increased blood glucose in mice.


Studies show limited support for use in reproductive problems.

Antibacterial / Antifungal:

Study showed the cactus possesses antibiotic activity against C albicans, E coli and Salmonella enterica var typhimurium. The hexanic and chloroformic fractions of dried NC were more effective than fresh pads in inhibiting C albicans growth.

Antibacterial / Antifungal:

Study evaluated the in vitro antimicrobial activity of Nopalea cochenillifera. An ethanol extract showed good antibacterial activity and inhibitory activity against microorganisms tested viz., E. coli, S. typhi, Micrococcus, K. pneumonia, S. aureus, C. albicans, C. glabrata, among others. Total polyphenols and flavonoids were significant when compared to standards of gallic acid and rutin.

Phytoremediation Potential:

Cactaceae Nopalea cochenillifera cell cultures transform various toxic textile dyes, including Red HE7B into less phytotoxic, non-hazardous metabolites. The significant induction of various enzymes (laccase, tyrosinase, azoreductase) and 2,6-dichlorophenolindophenol reductase) indicated the involvement of these enzymes in the transformation pathways of Red HE7B.

Read about other interesting fruits

Acai berry        Ambarella         Avocado           Bael       Banana      Bilberry      Cocunut   

 Cantaloupe      Dragon Fruit            Fig         Jamun        Kiwi        Mango       Mangosteen    

 Miracle fruit         Pomelo      Papaya        Phalsa    Pineapple         Plum       Pomegranate    

 Quince        Rambutan          Roselle         Santol         Sapota            Sea buckthorn      

 Sour Orange     Soursop       Sweet Lime          Star gooseberry         Star Apple     

 Strawberry      Surinam Cherry      Tomato       Watermelon         Wood apple

Read about herbs and spices

Allspice          Alfalfa       Ashwagandha        Bay leaf              Black cohosh           

Black onion seeds       Black pepper        Celery          Chives         Chamomile        Clove  

Coriander            Cumin        Fennel          Fenugreek        Ginger           Gotu Kola         

 Kava Kava    Licorice      Lotus        Majoram       Mustard seeds            Nutmeg      

 Oregano     Peppermint    Red  clover    Rose     Rosemary           Sage         St.John’s wort  

Tarragon         Thyme        Triphala powder      Wheat grass