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Nopal / Prickly Pear (Opuntia)

The largest diversity and production of nopales (opuntia) is found in the country of Mexico.


Nopal comes from the Nahuatl word nopalli (paddle). Prickly pears grow with flat, rounded paddles(cladodes). The texture is tough. Color green, with a  shiny and spiny body.

The opuntia produces large flowers, in a variety of colors.

Of the 1400 species of nopal cactii that exist, there are 670 in Mexico and over 500 are endemic to Mexico.

selective focus photography of prickly pear cactus

The opuntia also have edible fruit.


The nopal plant is millenial, its origins dating to the Pleistocene period. Opuntia was domesticated 9 thousand years. ago. 

Food use

The opuntia has three edible parts, the paddle considered a vegetable, the flowers, used in salads, and the pear (tuna), considered a fruit.

Over  90 species of Opuntia grow in the wild in Mexico.

The nopal is rich in water content, fiber, calcium and potassium. The Opuntia contains the following per 100 grams:

Proteins 1.4 grams

Calcium  164 mg

Potassium 195 mg

Iron  0.5 mg

Other uses

Opuntia is a valuable natural resource.

Recently, Mexican entrepeneurs have introduced an organic textile known as Cactus leather that is  sustainable and organic. No herbicides or pesticides are used, and water irrigation is not necessary.  

Did you know that there are electrical generators in Mexico that produce electricity based on the nopal are being used?  In 2015,the first electrical generator plant opened using nopal biomass opened in the state of Aguascalientes.  

Cactus nopal is also a useful forage in times of drought.  Opuntia is excellent forage for livestock, contributing to the  dairy industry in the north of Mexico. 

Opuntia is also used to prevent soil erosion and as bioplastic “juice”.


Prickly pear species are found in abundance in Mexico. In Mexico, 600 thousand tons of vegetable nopal are produced yearly. About half are cultivated in Milpa Alta.

Mexico is top in the production of nopal/prickly pear with more than 800 thousand tones produced in 2018.

Typically, there are three main production systems; wild opuntia communities, family crops, and commercial  plantations.  


Plantae Kingdom, Division Angiospermae, Class Dicotiledonae, OrderOpuntial, FamilyCactaceae, Subfamily Opuntioideae,  Opuntiae, GeneroOpuntia, SubgeneroPlatyopuntia, Species  Various names


Bravo H., H. 1978. Las Cactáceas de México2nd ed. Vol.1. México DF: UNAM. 743 p

Flannery, R.V. 1985. Los orígenes de la agricultura en México: las teorías y las evidencias. In: T. Rojas & W. Sanders T. (coord.) q.v.

Flores V., C.A., & Aguirre R., J.R. 1992. El nopal como forrajeUniv. Autónoma de Chapingo. Texcoco, México. 77 p.

Author: AllGoodsOnline