Opuntia spp.

PLANT NAME: Opuntia spp.

COMMON NAMES: Pänini, päpipi [Hawai’i]; prickly pear, barbary pear, indian pear [English]; xian ren zhang [China]; aathikan [Nepal]; cockineal [Bermuda]; nopal (whole plant), tuna (fruit) [Mexico]; nopal [South America]; rachette, cochineel [Carribean]; saptapheni [India]; scoggineal [Creole]; tuna, pa’kam [Mopal Maya].

FAMILY: Cactaceae.


  • The use of cactus as food has been carbon dated to 65 B.C.

  • In Mexico, Opuntia fruit (“tuna”) is made into jam, marmalade, syrup, and a paste called queso de tuna.

  • Eaten during lent in Mexico, when Catholics don’t eat meat.

  • One of Hawai’i’s tastiest psychopaths, Opuntia fruit is marvelous. They can be eaten fresh or dried for storage [Cahuilla]. They can be boiled like greens, pickled, cooked like eggplant, or put in scrambled eggs.

  • Pads are despined, peeled, boiled and eaten. Young pads are preferable and can be breaded with seasonings and fried, sauteed, or boiled.

  • Flowers roasted and eaten [Pima].

  • Dried seeds are used as a soup thickener.

  • In Mexico, a beverage called Tecuin is made with Opuntia fruit and Acacia bark.

  • A Central American beer, Colonche, (reputed to be over 2,000 years old) is made from Opuntia fruit. The fresh juice of pänini can be blended with orange or grapefruit juice, or made into wine (which reportedly ferments in a day). Interestingly, in a double blind crossover clinical trial, Opuntia ficus-indica was shown to be moderately effective against hangover [Wiese 2004]. Perhaps a “net-sum-game” dandelion / pänini wine is waiting to be born.

  • The annual amount of Nopalitos eaten in Mexico is the same as the annual amount of cauliflower eaten in the US.

RANGE: Semi-tropical and tropical areas. North, Central, and South America to Southern Europe, Mediterranean, India, & Australia.

HABITAT: Where ever it pleases, but likes it dry and sunny. On Maui it grows in drier areas of Kula and Omaopio.

TOXICITY: Oral administration of O. streptacantha is non-toxic to horses, humans, and mice [Ahmad 1996] While the aerial parts are safe, even if eaten in large amounts, the spines in one’s skin are an acquired taste. Some Chinese sources list the roots as mildly toxic.


Juan de Zumarraga, the first archbishop of Mexico, spent much of his spare time trying to eliminate all remnants of native culture. In his zeal to “cleanse” the New World of pagan ways, he managed to destroy most of the information as to how cacti were used as food, medicine, housing, dyes, glue, tools, and as spiritual implements.