A powerful fruit

Prickly pear Cactus, or as it is scientifically known, Opuntia ficus-indica, is a species of cactus with flat, rounded cladodes (also called platyclades) armed with spines, grown in places with a sunny and warm climate. Prickly pears also produce a red, wine-red, green, or yellow-orange fruit with the same name, also covered with little spines. The genus Opuntia is named after the Ancient Greek city of Opus, where, according to Theophrastus, grew an edible plant, which could be propagated by rooting its leaves. Some of the common English names for the prickly pear cactus and its fruit are Indian fig opuntia, barbary fig, cactus pear and spineless cactus.

Historical facts

As the names of this cactus in different languages show, it is a plant that came from far away, or at least, that it is not a plant originally located in Europe or the Mediterranean area. In English it is also called Indian fig opuntia (we should not forget that America was believed to be the Indies) or barbary fig. Barbary fig is also called in French (figue de Barbarie), whereas the Italians also call it “fico d’ India” (Indian fig). Opuntia ficus indica was introduced in Europe after America was discovered, since it is thought to possibly be native to Mexico. The coat of arms of Mexico depicts a Mexican golden eagle, perched upon an Opuntia cactus, holding a rattlesnake. The coat of arms is inspired by an Aztec legend, according to which the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli had commanded the Aztecs to find an eagle devouring a snake, perched atop a cactus that grew on a rock submerged in a lake. There they founded their new capital, the city Tenochtitlan.

In the Mediterranean area the prickly pear cactus was spread so quickly, that they have become naturalized. This spread was facilitated by the birds that transfer the seeds of the plants far away, or by the carrying of prickly pears on ships to prevent scurvy.


Opuntia ficus indica is mainly grown as a fruit crop. Jams and jellies are produced from the fruit, which resembles strawberries and figs in color and flavor. Mexicans have used Opuntia for thousands of years to make an alcoholic drink called colonche. In Sicily prickly pears are used for the production of a liqueur called Ficodi, whereas the fruits and the flowers of the cactus are the basis of fine skin care products. Cacti pears can offer an interesting array of food additives for incorporation into processed foods, which are implied as sweetener and colorant. The prickly pear fruit is also full in vitamin C and was one of the early cures for scurvy. In Sicily prickly pears are used for the production of a liqueur called Ficodi, whereas the fruits and the flowers of the cactus are the basis of fine skin care products. There are also fresh and dried Ficus Indica leaves, rich in vitamins, amino acids and mineral salts, on the market. The prickly pear stems as well as the fruit or their byproducts, after the spines have been removed, are used as feed for the animals, since they are extremely nutritious.

Prickly pear in pharmacy and cosmetology

Prickly pear cactus contains fiber and pectin, which can lower blood glucose by decreasing the absorption of sugar in the stomach and intestine. Some researchers think that it might also reduce triglycerides and cholesterol levels. It has also been shown to act as a healing and anti-aging factor.

One of the world’s rarest oils is produced from the prickly pear seeds, using a cold-press mechanical extraction process. This vegetable oil is rich in vitamins, mineral salts, poly-unsaturated fatty acids (linoleic acid, vitamin F, oleic acid), saturated fatty acids (palmitic acid) etc., as well as in antioxidants, which prevent aging. This oil nourishes the skin and has a moisturizing and emollient action. The prickly pear seed oil is also recommended for breast firming.

Prickly pear fruit is rich in flavonoids, antioxidants with potent anticancer properties. Prickly pear is a superb skin moisturizer and soother used in skin care products. It offers deep long lasting hydration and protects the skin from free radicals, which are generated due to the exposure to air pollution and UV radiation. It is recommended for sensitive and dry skin, whereas its antioxidant properties act against aging.

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