Scientific Name(S): Opuntia tuna mill (tuna) and Opuntia ficus-indica (barbary fig, Indian fig). Other species include: Opuntia fragilis (brittle prickly pear), Opuntia streptacantha.
Common Name(S): Prickly pear, Nopal
Prickly pear is a general term used to describe some plants of the Cactaceae family. The term includes species of Opuntia, Nopalea, and Acanthocereus. All of these plants originate in the Americas. The term 'prickly pear' relates to the fruit that is often spiny and pear-shaped. Plants are normally leafless succulent shrubs. Stems are divided into segments (pads or joints) that are flat and often incorrectly called leaves.
Most prickly pear cactus have yellow, red or purple flowers, even among the same species. They vary in height from less than a foot (Plains, Hedgehog, Tuberous) to 6 or 7 feet (Texas, Santa Rita, Pancake). Pads can vary in width, length, shape and color. The Beavertail, Santa Rita and Blind Pear are regarded as spineless, but all have glochids.
In addition to the North American native prickly pear cactus listed below, there are many varieties, non-native imports and hybrids, so identification can often be difficult. Information on the 15 species below is based on wild, non-cultivated samples.
Uses of Prickly Pear:
Prickly pear has been used to treat wounds, GI complaints, lipid disorders, and diabetes.
Side Effects of Prickly Pear:
Dermatitis may be the most common side effect from prickly pear. O. megacantha has been shown to be nephrotoxic in rat studies. Side effects may include exacerbation of hypoglycemia if combined with oral hypoglycemic agents.
Toxicology: Dermatitis from the plant was the most common toxicity found in current literature searches on prickly pear. A case report of cactus dermatitis in a 2-year-old child was described after contact with O. microdasys. Two other patients were affected by this same species, both experiencing dermatitis, and one developing severe keratoconjunctivitis in the right eye. A case of cactus granuloma in a 24-year-old male is described from contact with O. biegloviithorns. Granuloma formation has also been seen from O. acanthocarpa spines embedded in the dermis with onset occurring within several days and lasting several months. Treatment with topical corticosteroids has been recommended.
Side effects may include exacerbation of hypoglycemia if combined with oral hypoglycemic agents.
Other toxicities include the following: O. streptacantha is nontoxic in mice, horses, and humans in oral and IV preparations; O. megacantha is nephrotoxic, as described in 1 report in rats.
Summary: Prickly pear is a cactus native to tropical America and Mexico. It has been a source of food and drink for hundreds of years by Native Americans. The fruit is high in nutritional value. The flowers have been used to treat wounds, as have the cactus pads. Application of the pads to rashes, burns, and other wounds appears to be beneficial. Certain Opuntia species may also be of use in GI disorders and to lower cholesterol and glucose levels. Dermatitis is the most common toxicity associated with the plant and its spines.
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