Prickly Pear and Cholla History and Use

Learn about the historical use of prickly pear and the steps to prepare these tasty succulents.

| January 2018

  • Prickly pear cacti act as host for the small insect Cochineals, which produce a natural red dye carmine.
    Illustration by Edith Rewa Barrett
  • “Cattail Moonshine and Milkweed Medicine,” by Tammi Hartung showcasing creative ways people are using these plants today.
    Cover courtesy Story Publishing

Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants(Storey, 2016) by Tammi Hartung a longtime herbalist and organic farmer, tells little-known and captivating stories of how humans have relied on these plants for millennia to nourish, shelter, heal, clothe, and even entertain us. Hartung has been growning and working with herbs for more than 30 years and is a frequent teacher and lecturer. She and her husband cultivate more than 500 varieties of herbs, heirloom food plants, and perennial seed crops on their organic farm in Colorado. The following excerpt is from the “P” section.

Prickly Pear and Cholla Opuntia and Cylindropuntia Species

An herbalist named Peter Bigfoot used to say that if you ever tangle with a cholla, your body will have such a memory of the experience that you will forever after be able to walk through the desert blindfolded and barefoot, and your body will instinctually avoid any contact with this plant and its ruthless barbed spines. It amazes me how humans have been able to look beyond the prickly nature of these and other Opuntia relatives to find so many uses for them.

All Kinds of Cactus

There are hundreds of species of Opuntia across the United States, Canada, and Mexico; all are succulent plants, and most favor living in arid conditions. But there are some that are winter hardy, and others, like nopales (O. ficus-indica), that grow in subtropical climates.

One barbed brother.

Chollas (Cylindropuntia spp.) are upright with narrow, fingerlike branches that serve as the leaves of the plant. They are mostly wild-harvested for their flower buds and fruits, which are eaten. To gather them, though, harvesters must contend with cholla’s long spines, each of which has tiny barbs at the end. Once the cholla buds are picked, they are rolled around on a wire mesh screen to knock off the spines. When the spines are gone, the buds are ready to boil in water for 15 minutes. The buds cannot be eaten raw, because they contain high amounts of oxalic acid, which causes throat and kidney irritation; boiling removes this compound. When the buds turn dark green, they are ready to eat. They taste somewhat like okra.



The cultivated cousin.

The tender, nearly spineless pads of nopales (or nopalitos) are cultivated as a vegetable crop on farms and in gardens across Mexico and in the southwestern United States. Their “leaves” may be pear-shaped pads or narrow, fingerlike branches reaching into the sky, and the plants themselves can grow almost 9 feet tall. Even though nopales have fewer spines (and sometimes none at all), they do have glochids, tiny stiff hairs that stick into your skin. All members of the Opuntia clan have them, and they’re found at the base of the spine, or where the spine would normally be. They are miserable to remove! They are so small and light colored that they’re difficult to see and get hold of with tweezers.

Pretty, but prickly.

Prickly pears are the name more generally used to describe all other species of Opuntia with pear-shaped leaves. Although these are usually wild plants or varieties used in the landscaping trade, the flower buds, pads, and fruits are still fully edible but can be used for other purposes, too.

Tattoo Needles

Historically the long, straight, thin spines of the prickly pear were used to fashion tattooing needles by Native Americans in the southwestern part of North America. Charcoal was used to create the tattoo color. (I’m sure they were just as uncomfortable as present-day tattoo needles, though.)

Tender Pads, Tasty Fruits, Roasted Buds

Always an important food for the indigenous people of North America, the pads, fruits, and buds of these prickly cacti are also eaten in Australia, South Africa, South America, and throughout the Mediterranean — places they reached with the help of Christopher Columbus and other early explorers. Each part of the plant is prepared in a different way, but the first step is always to singe or scrape off the spines!

Edible pads.

The pads of nopales (the variety most used as a green vegetable), once their spines are removed, are sliced or cubed and eaten raw in salsa or as a topping on tacos. They can also be cooked any number of ways.

Juicy fruits.

The fruits of nopales (referred to as tunas) range in color from deep purple to red, orange to yellow. After the spines are rubbed off, the tuna is sliced open lengthwise, yielding a juicy, seedy pulp that tastes a bit like a melon. The fruits are used in many ways — from jams and syrups to pies and even margaritas. They are simply delicious, and full of vitamin C.

Roasted buds.

Unlike its cousin the nopalito, cholla is not as easy to prepare but is still used as a food plant. Cholla buds are harvested in the spring; the timing is important, as buds that have begun to open will fall apart when they’re cooked. The buds are rubbed on the ground or on a fine metal screen or singed over an open flame to remove the spines. Traditionally the buds are roasted in stone fire pits over a bed of mesquite wood coals. After the coals are hot, the pit is lined with a plant called seepweed (Suaeda nigra) to protect the buds from the full heat of the stones and keep them from scorching. Once the buds are packed into the pit, they are covered with a tarp or a piece of sheet metal and then soil is heaped over the lid to seal in the heat. The buds are gently roasted in this fashion for about 12 hours.

After roasting, the buds are removed from the pit and either eaten immediately or spread out on screens or mats to be dried and stored for later use. Dried cholla buds are soaked then cooked with beans and chiles, some onions, and garlic and a bit of shortening or lard.

The fruits of cholla are picked in fall when they are full ripe. Fruits are eaten raw or stewed, or they are dried for later use.

Carmine Dye

Prickly pear cacti are the sole hosts for small insects called cochineals, which produce carminic acid — the basis for the natural red dye carmine. The insects live on the cactus for 90 days before they are hand-picked off the plants and dried. (Although the insects can be found on wild cacti, they’re usually harvested from plantations where the cactus is grown specifically to produce these insects.) The carminic acid is extracted from their bodies and mixed with aluminum or calcium salts, resulting in a dye common in foods, cosmetics, and textiles. This is the dye that colored the “red coats” of British soldiers.



Build a Casita or a Grand Mission

When ground up and boiled, opuntia pads yield a juicy glue that is used in the preparation of a lime-based plaster or whitewash for homes and mission churches. This has been a traditional way of building in the southwest and Mexico for hundreds of years. There are historical buildings in the Southwest, such as Mission San Xavier del Bac (fondly called “the White Dove of the Desert”) near Tucson, Arizona, that have been renovated with this type of plaster and whitewashing. This traditional building material is much better suited to the structures and climatic conditions in these regions because it can be applied smoothly and does not crack when curing. It also holds up better than synthetic alternatives.

More from: Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine

Ancient and Useful Amaranth
Elderberry Benefits
MilkWeed Benefits


Excerpted from Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine, © by Tammi Hartung, illustration by Edith Rewa Barrett, used with permission from Storey Publishing.






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