Opuntia is a genus of about 200 species in the cactus family (Cactaceae), native to North and South America, from Canada to Argentina.
Opuntias have a unique shape and structure. The green segments are not leaves, but swollen water-storing stem segments – cladodes. The flat surfaces of these cladodes are covered with areoles that have tiny spines called glochids. Evolutionarily speaking, the leaves are modified into spines to protect a plant against predators. The flowers are usually cup-shaped and yellow in color. Opuntias are attractive, easy to grow and excellent for any garden. They are one of the most beautiful plants in the cactus world!
The genus was named after the Ancient Greek city of Opus, one of the oldest towns in Greece where it is said that a cactus-like plant grew.
The common name “Prickly Pear” refers to the spiny, rounded fruits that have a pear-like texture.
Opuntia is a symbol of hope.
Interesting facts about Opuntia:
Opuntias in Mexico
Opuntia is a plant typical of the Mexican landscape and a major symbol of identity for the Mexican people, surrounded by many mysteries and legends. The plant is one of the most important economic resources in Mexico. It is popular for its various medicinal, nutritional, industrial and ecological properties.
Aztecs used Opuntia to make juice which was then used to treat burns or even hepatitis. Today, Opuntias are popular because of the great economic importance of the fruit they produce. The fruit is known as tuna and the cactus in which it grows as nopal.
The Mexicans have used this plant for thousands of years to make an alcoholic drink called colonche, which is considered by some experts as one of the best drinks prepared in Mexico.
It’s also worth to mention that Opuntia appears on the coat of arms of Mexico. It has such a powerful meaning in Mexico that they put it in the middle of the national flag. The coat of arms features a Mexican Golden Eagle, with a serpent in his beak, perched upon a Prickly Pear cactus.
Opuntias in Texas, USA
On January 23, 1995, Opuntia was named the official state plant of the U.S. state of Texas.
The reason the Prickly Pear was chosen over is outlined in 1995’s House Concurrent Resolution No. 44: “Rugged, versatile, and beautiful, the Prickly Pear cactus has made numerous contributions to the landscape, cuisine, and character of the Lone Star State, and its unusual status as both a vegetable and a fruit make it singularly qualified to represent the indomitable and unique Texas spirit as an official state symbol.”
Benefits and Uses
In history, Opuntias have been important as food sources, as well as for drink and medicine.
Opuntia has a long history in traditional medicine for the treatment of diabetes, high blood cholesterol, diarrhea, colitis, ulcers, skin problems, obesity and other conditions.
Some species have very juicy fruits called tunas, which are edible and have been a source of food to native Americans for thousands of years.
They are nutritious and a good source of minerals such as potassium and zinc.
The plant is also used in cosmetic products and even to produce renewable energy.
Cactus - Succulents
These flowers are usually yellow, sometimes red and pink, but rarely white.
Opuntias vary in height from 20 cm (8 inches) to giants that grow up to 4,5 metres (15 ft) in height.
Opuntia needs well-drained soil that is acid, alkaline or neutral.