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Opuntia ficus-indica

Opuntia ficus-indica

Conservation status
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) is a species of cactus and a long-domesticated crop plant important in agricultural economies throughout arid and semiarid parts of the world. Indian 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 Haitian origin taken into the Spanish language around 1500).

Opuntia ficus-indica is a crop species that figures prominently in the modern folklore of ethnobotany. Opuntioid cacti are recognized as ideal crops for arid regimes because they are extremely efficient at converting water into biomass. Opuntia ficus-indica, one of several long-domesticated cactus species, is the most widespread and economically important of these cactus crops, as important as corn and tequila agave in the agricultural economy of modern Mexico. The facile hybridization of Opuntia is very well documented; this genus is among the most interspecifically promiscuous plants, perhaps rivaled only by Quercus (oak) in this regard. The relative ease of vegetative propagation of Opuntia is demonstrated by its occasional clonal dominance of certain areas. This aspect of Opuntia marks it as a noxious weed in some places. This ease of clonal propagation was probably not lost on the very early human population of the New World. Evidence exists for the use of Opuntia as human food at least 9,000 years before the present or even as early as 12,000 years ago, probably before cultivation.



  Opuntia ficus-indica is used in numerous ways. In modern times, first and foremost, O. ficus-indica is grown for the large, sweet fruits, called tunas, which are available in local and commercial markets worldwide. Important tuna-growing regions include Mexico, Sicily, Algeria, Chile, Brazil, and northern Africa, as well as in Eritrea and Ethiopia where the fruit is called beles (Ge'ez: በለስ).[1] In addition, the young cladodes (stem segments) of O. ficus-indica are harvested as Nopales, a vegetable crop. Although this crop is less valuable worldwide than the fruit crop, vegetable products of O. ficus-indica are available in many local and commercial markets. Various other uses have been reported for O. ficus-indica, including as a binding and waterproofing agent in adobe.

Opuntia ficus-indica (along with other Opuntia and Nopalea species) has been grown from pre-Columbian times as a host plant for cochineal insects (Dactylopius coccus) for the production of valuable, vivid red and purple dyes. It is used to make Tungi Spirit on the island of Saint Helena.

Medicinal properties of O. ficus-indica have been documented as early as 1552 - including use as a hangover cure (see source at bottom of page). Recently, extracts for 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. [2]

The shoots of O. ficus-indica have been shown to contain at least some mescaline.[3]


Early European botanists (often referring to Pliny or Theophrastus) called this cactus Ficus indica, although some found this to be an unsuitable name, as the plant did not resemble the Indian fig (possibly Ficus benghalensis) already known. Carolus Linnaeus published Cactus opuntia and C. ficus-indica in Species Plantarum. Miller combined these into Opuntia ficus-indica in 1768. In the recorded history of the Old World, O. ficus-indica was certainly known at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and it is believed that this species accompanied Christopher Columbus in his first return to Lisbon in 1493, placing O. ficus-indica in the Caribbean by at least the late 1400s, although it is not native there. The plants are also recorded in cultivation in Tlaxcala, Mexico in 1519. Opuntia ficus-indica fruits and shoots were also reportedly consumed by the Maya of southeastern Mexico. There is also some evidence for the use of O. ficus-indica by the Nazca of Peru, placing these plants in South America at a very early date. Other workers maintain that this taxon was unknown in pre-Columbian South America. The succulent, ever-fresh cladodes were certainly a novelty to late fifteenth century and later Europeans and were widely included in ships’ stores as insurance against scurvy. This practice is thought to have contributed greatly to the present naturalized range of Opuntia ficus-indica throughout arid and semi-arid habitats of the world. This widespread propagation (intended and unintended) throughout the Mediterranean obscured the geographic origins of this species; many early European botanists regarded this cactus to be native, as reflected in Cactus opuntia (i.e., spiny plant from near Opus, Greece). This Mediterranean naturalization may now be conceived as complete, as the Israelis of the mid twentieth century often adopted the (believed-indigenous) sabras as a symbol of their struggle (and humanity) in adverse desert conditions.


Recent DNA analysis indicates that O. ficus-indica is a crop domesticated from ancestral stock of arborescent, fleshy fruited plants growing in central Mexico. From this center of origin, O. ficus-indica cultivation likely spread through trade amongst the peoples of Mesoamerica. One artifact that indicates the value of prickly-pear as a trade item is the Codex Mendoza, which depicts Aztec tribute rolls. This codex includes a representation of Opuntia cladodes amongst other items such as ocelot and jaguar skins. This is the only early colonial period representation of Opuntia as a possible trade item, although the plant is often depicted in such codices outside of this context. Cochineal dye, for which Opuntia cultivation is required, is also depicted as paid tribute to the Aztecs.

From Mesoamerica, these plants were introduced into Cuba, Hispaniola, and other Caribbean islands, where early European explorers first encountered the plants. It seems conceivable that these plants were also brought to South America in pre-Columbian times, although their early presence in Peru is disputed; there is evidence that the pre-Columbian Incas certainly cultivated cochineal, however.


  • 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. ^ "Beles" in Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: A-C(Wiesbaden:Harrassowitz Verlag, 2003).
  3. ^ Opuntia ficus-indica (Dr. Duke's Database)
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Opuntia_ficus-indica". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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