Yes, we have nopales

Yes, we have nopales is food, fashion and fun, celebrating the abudance of our Sonoran Desert.

Yes, we have nopales designs debuted at the Spring Fashion Celebration at Dinnerware Artspace on March 21.

Dinner may be right outside the door, ready for the picking. In the spring, the prickly pear cactus plant puts out new pads (nopales). It is easiest to harvest and prepare them before the spines harden.

Simply grasp the pad with ice tongs to secure it. Then use a sharp kitchen knife or utility knife to slice the pad off at the juncture with the bigger pad it is sprouting from.

Remove the spines with a knife or vegetable peeler (I like to do this with the pad on a plate, and use a fork to secure it.) If there are glochids (little hairs), remove them too. If they stick to the pad, use a dish scrubber to brush them off.

Cut the pads into bite-sized pieces, and steam them until the pad turns a sage green. Then add them to salads, scrambled eggs, casseroles or soups. Or see websites and books listed below for recipes.

As well as being tasty, prickly pear has been making news for its role in managing diabetes, lowering cholesterol, regulating weight, and reducing prostate inflammation. Since diabetes is common among people of Native American ancestry in this region, there are particular health benefits to Native people in returning to traditional foods like prickly pear.

Native Seeds/SEARCH’s Desert Foods for Diabetes program teaches about using nopales, cholla cactus buds, saguaro fruit, mesquite pods, desert chia and tepary beans.

When I began harvesting desert foods, I learned more by interviewing then-executive director Kevin Dahl, and writing stories for the Arizona Daily Star and Tucson Lifestyle. Dahl explained that even people who are not diabetic may benefit from how nopales and other desert foods help regulate blood sugar levels. He explained that weight gain can be a symptom that a person is not able to regulate blood sugar well. When a person’s blood sugar rises to a high level after eating and then crashes, then the person will feel hungry and eat more.

Many of the traditional desert foods contain water-soluble fibers that help them stay moist in an arid climate. The effort required to break down these fibers slows the digestion rate, so that sugar enters the blood stream at an even rate over four to six hours. A person with Type II diabetes may be able to produce enough insulin to work with this slow stream of sugar, and thus reduce or eliminate use of insulin injections.

A recent study by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that people with diabetes are 65 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Diabetes has also been linked to strokes. Diabetes became common among the Tohono O’odham people when they began eating a modern Western diet. Eating traditional desert foods appears to protect people who are susceptible to developing diabetes, said Dahl.

The water-soluble fiber of wild psyllium also helps in regulating blood sugar levels, said Dahl, even though psyllium is better known as a component in intestinal cleansing and regularity products.

When researchers in Vienna, Austria gave prickly pear pulp to people, they found that as well as lowering blood sugar levels, the prickly pear also lowered levels of the “bad” cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol, and triglycerides, without affecting the “good” cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein-cholesterol.  Researchers have also found that prickly pear pads are high in anti-oxidants.

Dried prickly pear pad is now available in capsule form. While some studies have shown that such capsules can be effective in the treatment of Type II diabetes, it is important to know the cactus species in the capsule, method of preparation, and quantity of material per capsule. Ran Knishinsky gives detailed information on choosing products in his book, Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine: Treatments for Diabetes, Cholesterol, and the Immune System.

Capsules of dried prickly pear flowers are also available commercially.  When men with benign prostate inflammation were given these dried flowers, they experienced a decrease in inflammation.

Growing prickly pear

While health benefits can be achieved by ingesting capsules of dried pads, only a dish made with nopales can satisfy a taste craving for cactus.

Fortunately, prickly pear pads are one of the easiest plants to get going. Desert Survivors Nursery sells plants starting at $10. If you have a plant in your large, you can also cut off a pad and plant it. When neighbors clean out their yards, they may also have pads they are happy to give away.

Place the cut end in a shallow (4-5 inch) hole and tamp the soil back around the plant. Water it well initially (or transplant in the rainy season). Once it is established, it will not need supplemental watering.

Resources for learning more:

Native Seeds/SEARCH
526 N. 4th Ave.

Desert Survivors Nursery
1020 W. Starr Pass

Food City
See phone book for numerous locations
Carries prickly pear pads in the produce section

Prickly pear recipes from Desert USA

The Prickly Pear Cookbook  by Carolyn Neithammer (contains recipes from the Mediterranean and Israel, since it got established after sailors carried it back with them as a Vitamin C source.)

Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine by Ran Knishinsky

Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert by Wendy C. Hodgson

Gathering the Desert by Gary Paul Nabhan (cofounder of Native Seeds/SEARCH)

new prickly pear pad with soft proto-spines


prickly pear cactus and sun on white  t-shirt

raw prickly pear pads for eating