While its main use globally is as that of an animal feed, opuntia need not be regulated to livestock only (wildlife loves it as well); it provides a plethora of palette pleasing possibilities to the diet of the savvy human. One need look no farther than the commercial value as an initial indication of acceptance. Opuntia fruits are sold in markets of the USA, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, North Africa, Spain, Italy, and Greece as a specialty fruit. The market for green vegetable pads is centered in Mexico and the southwestern USA, where its influence is expanding.
With an average time until first fruiting of 3.5 years, opuntia can offer a relatively hasty maturing perennial. Coupled with the fact the vegetable pads are best when they are young and you can both harvest young pads early on, also stimulating growth, while enjoying a sweeter fruit for your labor and patience a few years later.
Though an edible oil, akin to soya, maize, and sunflower, can be had from the edible seeds, it is generally reserved for cosmetic products as it is cost prohibitive. Likewise, the edibility of the seeds is foregone for the profitability of the oil.
Some of the common opuntia names allude to its edibility - Indian Fig, many variations on Prickly Pear, and Cactus apple.
The most delicious part of the plant is the crisp white fleshed fruit - known in Mexico as a tuna. High in sugar it is sure to please even the pickiest palette. The sugar content also lends itself to the production of various juices, marmalades, jams (melochocha), syrups (miel de tuna, jarabe), and fermented drinks (colonche). A mustard (queso de tuna) is made of the by-product pulp of the juiced fruit.
While agreeably delicious, the tuna fruit isn't without healthy merit. It contains a high amount of Vitamin C, which many believe is important in staying healthy in general and said to fight colds specifically.
The fruits of the first years' harvest will be slightly smaller, but the average weight of a tuna is 100-200g (0.2-0.4lbs). The first years' harvest should average about 2kg of tuna fruit, which are actually classified as berries.
The fruit can keep well at 5-8C (41-46F), but for longer term storage it can be dried. Dried opuntia fruits were an important part of the diet for many of the indigenous people.
Much more plentiful than the fruit are the vegetable pads. These are officially called cladodes, but in Mexico and the southwestern USA the young ones are called nopalitos. These are consumed raw or cooked in salads, cooked in vegetable oil, pickled, or as a mucilaginous (thickening) agent in soup.
These Nopalitos have a hypoglycemic effect, not stimulating insulin production. In addition, the young cladodes have hypocholesterolhaemic, anti-pyretic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antispasmodic effects; Opuntia's dry flowers brew a diuretic tea.
As with livestock feeding, the spines must be removed prior to eating. The large spines can be plucked fairly easily - or avoided altogether with a spineless variety. The smaller tufts of burr like spines, called glochids, can be removed with a stiff bristled brush. Care should be taken to remove all of these glochids, as they will cause irritation if ingested. After the spines are removed, the pads are generally skinned when prepared for human consumption.
In a medium size mixing bowl, combine cactus, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and cilantro. Squeeze the juice from both lemons over the mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Sprinkle with garlic salt (if you'd like) and serve.
When using fresh cactus: skin and boil until tender, then drain.
If using canned cactus, drain well.
Backyard stands are usually productive than commercial operations. These backyard opuntia orchards are a common sight in semi-arid central Mexico. Older backyard orchards often have valuable regionally adapted cultivars.
When combined, the uses of opuntia offer a unique value to the arid land homestead. A simple but effective sample of stacking oputina's functions would be a living fence that can be grazed back with the strategic blow torching of spines. The opuntia fence would also produce fruit for either human or livestock consumption, fresh, stored dry, or ensiled. Further, the fence provides a safety-net in dire circumstance.
There are over 200 species of opuntia, not all of them are going to taste the same. There will also be a great deal of difference in flavor between individual plants unless specific cultivars are selected. Some varieties even produce inedible fruit! If fruit production is a concern, take the time to locate and appropriate cultivar.