Traditional Uses of the Prickly Pear plant
The prickly pear plant belongs to the genus Opuntia and is native to the Americas, from Chile to Canada. Columbus took the plant back to Europe at the end of the fifteenth century and now it is found all over the planet (Niethammer, 2004). It has a long history in Native American, particularly Aztec legends in which the prickly pear is a central figure. Folklore describes how the Aztecs, after wandering for many generations looking for a home, one day saw an eagle perched on a prickly pear on a small swampy island in the lake of Texoco. Taking this as a sign of where they should settle, they built a city in 1325 called Mexico- Tenochitlan meaning “in the moon’s navel – place of the prickly pear cactus”. This location is close to modern day Mexico City (Niethammer, 2004).
The prickly pear cactus is unique among other plants in that it is a vegetable, fruit and flower all in one (Knishinsky, 2004). Traditional herbalists may relate the plants nature with its healing power, for example, that having adaptive qualities to thrive in difficult environmental conditions is thought to increase the body’s level of resistance to disease (Knishinsky, 2004). Believers of the Doctrine of Signatures may interpret that the thorns of the prickly pear relate to its defensive posture indicating the plants usefulness as a healer of wounds (Knishinsky, 2004). Mrs. Grieve (1931) describes that in homeopathy, a tincture is made from the flowers and wood for spleen troubles and diarrhoea.
Prickly pear was eaten in the Americas as far back as 65 BC (Niethammer, 2004). Spanish conquerors of Mexico recognized the benefits of the prickly pear fruits as a partial cure for scurvy that plagued the sailors (Knishinsky, 2004). The prickly pear is a staple food in the diets of those native to the southwestern portion of the United States and those settled throughout Central and South America as well as parts of Europe and the Middle East (Knishinsky, 2004). The driving force behind the prickly pears use and popularity is its ability to function as both food and medicine. For generations the prickly pear has played an important role in the pharmacopoeia of native healers in Mexican and Southwestern Native American tribes (Niethammer, 2004). An Aztec herbal book from 1552 includes a picture of a prickly pear pad and a prescription for a burn ointment that combines cactus juice, honey and egg yolk (Niethammer, 2004). Aztecs used the sap of the pads to expel intestinal parasites and to increase the excretion of urine. It has been widely used for wounds, burns and sunburn by the Native American tribes (Niethammer, 2004). In Sicily it was used to reduce the itch of measles and in China the split pad was bound on dog bites. The Pima Indians of Arizona have used heated split pads to soothe sore breasts from nursing (Niethammer, 2004). Various Native American tribes drink an infusion of smashed pads to facilitate childbirth or use the mucilage to lubricate the midwife’s hand for placental removal (Knishinsky, 2004).
Further traditional uses of the pads and fruits are as an analgesic, and anti-inflammatory diuretic, and antirheumatic (by rubbing warm juice on the wound), as a hemostat and also use the poultice to a swollen throat (Knishinsky, 2004).
Chiron Organic Health is the only certified organic producer of Prickly Pear in Australia. We create a range of interesting products using the Prickly Pear cactus which can be found here.