Nopal Cactus

Mexico is the country with the largest diversity of production of Opuntia cactus, commonly known as prickly pear (nopal). Nopal is the name of the cactus plant, as well as the paddles of the plant.


The prickly pear (nopal) plant has the scientific name of Opuntia. The plant grows with flat, rounded paddles (cladodes). Its color is green. The texture on the outside is firm with smooth prickly spine needles. The texture on the inside is crisp, soft, and gelatinous. The plant extends upward and grows vertically. It can grow to 15 feet in height (5 meters).

The prickly pear nopal plant grows with flat, rounded paddles (cladodes). Its color is green.

green cactus plant
selective focus photography of prickly pear cactus

The nopal has fruit, commonly known as prickly-pear (tuna), that is edible and sweet. There are different tuna varieties and colors.   

Of the 1,400 species of all cacti, 670 are in México, and of these 508 are endemic to México.

México is considered as the center of major diversity of cacti on the continent and the center of diversity of nopales. Of the 200 species of nopales, there are 101 species in México.

Nopales can be found in far north to southern México. Typically, the succulent plant is cultivated in arid areas, as it converts water into biomass and helps control erosion. Wild species of nopal are also found in México.


The word nopal comes from the Nahuatl word nopalli (paddle). Opuntia in México date to pre-Hispanic times. The nopal is an ancestral plant, exemplified 20 thousand years ago, by the first settlers of the basin of México. This is the earliest history of the nopal in México.

The nopal is known to have been domesticated 9 thousand years ago and has great significance in México. Interestingly, it is cited in various codices, which include elements of the foundation of the Aztec empire.     

Food use

The paddles are edible and is rich in water content, fiber, calcium and potassium. Consumption of the nopal and fruit (tuna) in México are also ancient and traditional.

Nopal Production

The nopal cacti species are found in abundance in México and there are many uses for the nopal.  It is common as a food source, produced for cattle, used in art, construction, science, and health and beauty products.

600 thousand tons of vegetable nopal are produced in México, about half are cultivated in the region of Milpa Alta. Furthermore, the country of México is the principal producer of nopal, 74 percent of all nopal produced in the world.  

Author AllGoodsOnline