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Opuntia ficus-indica
Illustration by Eaton in The Cactaceae
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Caryophyllales
Family: Cactaceae
Genus: Opuntia
Subgenus: Opuntia
Species: O. ficus-indica
Binomial name
Opuntia ficus-indica
(L.) Mill.

Opuntia vulgaris

Opuntia ficus-indica (Indian Fig Opuntia or barbary fig) is a species of cactus and a long-domesticated crop plant important in agricultural economies throughout arid and semiarid parts of the world. A common English name for the plant and its fruit, is the prickly pear, although this common name has also been applied to other less common Opuntia species.



Opuntia ficus-indica flower

Fig Opuntia is grown primarily as a fruit crop, but also for the vegetable nopales and other uses. Most culinary references to the "prickly pear" are referring to this species. The name "tuna" is also used for the fruit of this cactus, and for Opuntia in general (according to Alexander von Humboldt, it was a word of Hispaniola native origin taken into the Spanish language around 1500).

Opuntia ficus-indica (Indian Fig) in Secunderabad, India.

Cacti are good crops for dry areas because they efficiently convert water into biomass. Opuntia ficus-indica, as the most widespread of the long-domesticated cactuses, is as economically important as corn and tequila agave in Mexico today. Because Opuntia species hybridize easily (much like oaks), the wild origin of Opuntia ficus-indica is likely to have been Mexico due to the fact that its close genetic relatives are found in central Mexico.[1]


The fruits of Opuntia ficus-indica as sold in Morocco.

The most commercially valuable use for Opuntia ficus-indica today is for the large, sweet fruits, called tunas. Areas with significant tuna-growing cultivation include Mexico, Spain, Sicily and the coasts of Southern Italy, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel,Palestine, Chile, Brazil, Turkey and northern Africa, as well as in Eritrea and Ethiopia where the fruit is called beles (Ge'ez: በለስ).[2] In Sicily, where the Prickly Pear Fruit is known as ficodinnia (the Italian name being fico d'India), the cactus grows wild and cultivated to heights of 12-16'.

The fruits flower in three distinct colors: white, yellow and red. They first appear in early May through the early summer and ripen from August through October. The fruits are typically eaten, minus the thick outer skin, after chilling in a refrigerator for a few hours. They have a taste similar to a juicy extra sweet watermelon. The bright red/purple, or white/yellowish flesh contains many tiny hard seeds that are usually swallowed, but should be avoided by those who have problems digesting seeds.

Opuntia ficus-indica fruit9.jpg

Jams and jellies are produced from the fruit, which resemble strawberries and figs in color and flavor.

Mexicans have used Opuntia for thousands of years to make an alcoholic drink called colonche.

In the center of Sicily, in the Province of Enna, in a small village named Gagliano Castelferrato, a prickly pear-flavored liqueur is produced called "Ficodi", flavored somewhat like a medicinal/aperitif.

In the early 1900s, in the United States the prickly pear fruit was imported from Sicily and other Mediterranean countries to satisfy the growing population of immigrants arriving from Italy (Sicily) and Greece. The fruit lost its popularity during the mid 1950's and has been increasing in popularity recently in the late 1990s until today, due to the influx of Mexican immigrants.

Recently the cattle industry of the Southwest United States has begun to cultivate Opuntia ficus-indica as a fresh source of feed for cattle. The cactus is grown both as a feed source and a boundary fence. Cattle avoid the sharp spines of the cactus and do not stray from an enclosed area of Opuntia ficus-indica. The nutrition available in the cactus pads, which is what the cows feed on, far surpasses that found in corn and other cattle feed. In addition to the food value, the moisture content virtually eliminates watering the cattle and the human effort in achieving that chore.

Mexican and other southwestern residents eat the young cactus pads (nopales), usually picked before the spines harden. They are sliced into strips skinned or unskinned, and fried with eggs and jalapeños, served as a breakfast treat. They have a texture and flavor like string beans.

Opuntia ficus-indica (Indian Fig)flowering in Secunderabad, India.

In Malta, a liqueur called Bajtra (the Maltese name for prickly pear) is made from this fruit, which can be found growing wild in most every field. On the island of Saint Helena, the prickly pear also gives its name to locally distilled liqueur, Tungi Spirit.

Also, the cladodes are eaten as nopales.

Other uses include as an ingredient in adobe (to bind and waterproof).[1]

Opuntia ficus-indica (as well as other species in Opuntia and Nopalea) is cultivated in nopalries to serve as a host plant for cochineal insects, which produce desirable red and purple dyes. This practice dates from pre-Columbian times.[3]

O. ficus-indica has various medicinal uses[1] - including use as a hangover cure (see source at bottom of page). Recently, extracts of the cactus pear fruit has shown to possess antioxidative properties and can cause reduction of DNA damage in human peripheral lymphocytes. This extract has become a potential source of raw material for pharmaceutical and functional food industries. [4]

Opuntia ficus-indica is claimed to contain both soluble and insoluble dietary fibers which block fat absorption (similar to Chitosan), slow absorption of sugar and help create a feeling of fullness. Some weight loss products, such as Proactol and Be Proactive claim to exploit this by using Opuntia ficus-indica as their active ingredient.

The shoots of O. ficus-indica have been shown to contain at least some mescaline.[5]

The plant is considered a pest species in parts of the Mediterranean due to its ability to spread rapidly beyond the zones it was originally cultivated in. In Hebrew, the plant is referred to as "tzabar."[6] Kishkashta a main character on a 1970-80s Israeli children's show, "Ma Pit'om", was a large, talking felt puppet of the Opuntia cactus.


Recent DNA analysis indicates that O. ficus-indica was domesticated from Opuntia species which are native to central Mexico. The Codex Mendoza, and other early sources, show Opuntia cladodes as well as cochineal dye (which needs cultivated Opuntia) in Aztec tribute rolls. The plant spread to many parts of the Americas in pre-Columbian times, and since Columbus, have spread to many parts of the world, especially the Mediterranean where they have become naturalized (and in fact were believed to be native by many). This spread was facilitated by the carrying of nopales on ships to prevent scurvy.[1]


  • Anderson, E. F. 2001. The cactus family. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, USA.
  • Barclay, L. 2004 Herb Helps Alcohol Hangover. Medscape Medical news
  • Benson, L. H. 1982. The cacti of the United States and Canada. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, USA.
  • Donkin, R. 1977. Spanish red: an ethnogeographical study of cochineal and the Opuntia cactus. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 67: 1–77.
  • Griffith, M. P. 2004. The origins of an important cactus crop, Opuntia ficus-indica (Cactaceae): New molecular evidence. American Journal of Botany 91: 1915-1921.
  • Kiesling, R. 1998. Origen, domesticación y distribución de Opuntia ficus-indica. Journal of the Professional Association for Cactus Development 3. Available online.


  1. ^ a b c d Griffith, 2004
  2. ^ "Beles" in Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: A-C(Wiesbaden:Harrassowitz Verlag, 2003).
  3. ^ Keisling, 1998
  4. ^ NALIN SIRIWARDHANA, FEREIDOON SHAHIDI, YOU-JIN JEON (December 2006). "Potential Antioxidative Effects Of Cactus Pear Fruit (Opuntia Ficus-Indica) Extract On Radical Scavenging And Dna Damage Reduction In Human Peripheral Lymphocytes" (abstract). Journal of Food Lipids 13 (4): 445–458. doi:10.1111/j.1745-4522.2006.00065.x. 
  5. ^ Opuntia ficus-indica (Dr. Duke's Database)
  6. ^ This led to the popular use of the term "Sabra" to refer to an Israeli-born Jew, alluding to the fruit and the people alike being tenacious and thorny (rough and masculine) on the outside but sweet and soft (delicate and sensitive) on the inside.


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary


Wikipedia has an article on:


Proper noun

Opuntia ficus-indica

  1. (taxonomy) A taxonomic species within the genus OpuntiaIndian fig. A cactus.



Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From Wikispecies

Opuntia ficus-indica


Classification System: APG II (down to family level)

Main Page
Cladus: Eukaryota
Regnum: Plantae
Cladus: Angiospermae
Cladus: Eudicots
Cladus: core eudicots
Cladus: Unassigned core eudicots
Ordo: Caryophyllales
Familia: Cactaceae
Subfamilia: Opuntioideae
Tribus: Opuntieae
Genus: Opuntia
Species: Opuntia ficus-indica


Opuntia ficus-indica (L.) Mill.


Vernacular names

English: Indian Fig, Barbary Fig
Español: Tuna, Nopal, Penca, Higuera de Chumbo, Higuera de Pala, Chumbera
한국어: 선인장
Wikimedia Commons For more multimedia, look at Opuntia ficus-indica on Wikimedia Commons.

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