Prepare with a Pear?
Ever eaten a prickly pear cactus? Maybe not. However, you have probably seen them at the grocery store. From coast to coast, produce sections stock the cactus fruit, mainly for their Latin shoppers. If you haven’t noticed them, look for them on your next produce aisle stroll. And, for reasons you will discover, they are worth looking for.
Prickly Pear Intro
Though this cactus fruit may be something new to you, me and the prickly pear go way back. My relationship with this particular cactus started whilst I was writing a book on the healing plants written about in the Bible. The book involved field research and I stupidly scheduled a trip to Israel in the mid summer. I learned the hard way, you don’t want to be out and about in the mid-summer desert! Call it “dry heat” if you must, hot is hot and it was making me want to puke. The heat was so bad it was making it really hard to get any work done. At a point a local person tipped me off to a desert survival secret. Get some prickly pear cactus fruit, eat it, and you will be better able to bear the punishing desert environment. There was a little Palestinian women who sold the fruit at the local market, I got some, ate them, and did better in the sun. After that, I got in the habit of munching the sweetish fruits before heading into the heat.
Now, the Israeli landscape is dotted with stands of prickly pear cactus and they are truly breath taking plants. The Israelis call them Sabras, a term also used for Jewish people born in Israel prior to the creation of the Jewish State. Anyhow, when you are walking around the desert, you find the prickly pear plant.
So, while working on my book, sweating like a pig in the desert, I came onto a lovely stand of prickly pear cacti covered with red ripe fruits. To beautiful to pass up, I helped myself to a hat full. Now, in my life as a botanist, “finds” such as these often turn out to be not so much of a find. And this was certainly the case here.
You see, I didn’t know was that the pears I had been buying at the market had been fleeced of microscopic glass like spines… and that the ones I had just picked had not. Half an hour later I was in sheer agony. What’s worse than being in the desert heat? Being there covered with microscopic cactus spines. I felt like I had rolled naked in a bed of glass shards. Ouch. And it took months for all the spines to work their way out of my pelt. I was in so much pain I wanted someone to shoot me dead. One of my most unpleasant experiences to date, the prickly pear cactus was forever etched in my mind and ass.
And actually, I wouldn’t want to forget it. It’s a fascinating plant with a curious past and a bright future. The prickly pear lives in the harshest environments known and still manages to flourish. It takes sand, heat, and killing sun and uses the three to produce nutritious pads and a delicious sweet fruit. The pads and the fruit both have a myriad of uses. In fact, wherever it grows, people adore it.
Prickly Pear History
Let’s start with some basic botany. Though I encountered it in Israel, it is not native to that part of the world. It is native to the southwestern United States down through much of Mexico. It was spread to the hot and dry parts of the world during the colonial age.
On its home turf, the plant was really important to ancient Native American cultures. Aztec legend has it that Aztec civilization started at the foot of Prickly pear cactus stand. The story goes that a group of Aztec men saw an Eagle perched in a Prickly Pair cactus with a snake in its beak. The eagle had overcome the snake. They took this as an Omen that they too would overcome their adversaries and in reverence for the vision, they built their capital on the site of the vision. The Mexican word for Prickly pear, Nopal, comes from the Aztec word nocheznopalli. There are 30 different Prickly pear species(3) many of which were and are used by Native American cultures for food and medicine.
As the Spanish conquistadors moved into Mexico, they learned of the cactus from the Native people. In the colonial age, the cactus continued to play a pivotal role in day to day life. Spanish colonials used the cactus pads in tasty salads and the fruits were made into sweet cakes, syrups, jams, and candies. (1)
The Spanish colonists also became acquainted with the many medicinal uses for the Prickly Pear. Both the pads and the fruits were used to treat a variety of complaints involving inflammation. Different kinds of inflammation, but inflammation none the less. Traditional uses include inflammatory skin diseases, eye inflammation, intestinal tract inflammation (dysentery), urinary tract inflammation (gonorrhea) burns, and joint/muscle inflammation. (2,5) The most consistent use for the prickly pear, across a collection of Native America and colonial cultures was as a treatment for swollen muscles, joints, and bones. This includes chronic complaints (arthritis, fiber myalgia) and traumatic injuries (tears, strains, and breaks.) (5)
As you may know, America snatched a big chunk of Mexico (California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona from Spain) and this led to the cowboy age in the southwestern part of North America. In this transition of control, prickly pear went from Spanish mission cure to cowboy medicine. Life on the range was active and often resulted in nasty injuries. The part of the western, left out of the western, was that cowboys often fell off their horse and either got run over by the horse or dragged a few miles before being run over by the horse. You can imagine that being dragged through acres of thorny cacti would result in a cowboy that did not look like the Marlboro man.
Anyhow, when an injury occurred, cowboys collected the omnipresent prickly pear cactus and applied it to the affected part or parts. Once applied, the cactus sped healing and rapidly got the man back on his horse. Injury, worn out joints, festering wounds, (3) broken bones and general soreness were all treated with the pear. (5)
Straight out of a western, here is a real life cowboys account of prickly pear’s ability to heal injuries. “During the night, half asleep, I felt something crawlin’ on my face, and in strikin out to drive it away, I mashed a big tarantula just at the outside corner of my right eye. Didn’t think the thing had time to nip me, but his juice ran down my face, and I guess some it got into my eye. Well, sir, in the morning, there was a knot as big as a turkeys egg over my right eye, closing it tight. Then I was scared. Told the boys to hold the herd and burnt the earth getting back to Uvalde. Well, sir, the prickly pear done the trick. Next day, the knob over my eye was half gone. Another poultice of the same kind cleaned it out good and the lance cuts healed up quick. Since then the boys have used prickly pear poultices on themselves and their horses for festering wounds from tears of mesquite thorns and nigger heads they get while hunting beeves in the chaparral.” (3) Though most cowboys have moved onto greener pastures, throughout Mexico prickly pear is still used to remedy joint and muscle complaints.
Prickly Pear as Medicine
In recent days the scientific community has validated these traditional uses of the pear. As an example, a prickly pear extract was found to be powerfully anti-inflammatory. In tests with rats, the extract inhibited experimentally induced joint inflammation. Researchers found that this anti-inflammatory effect was at least partly due to a potent inhibition of white blood cell migration into sites of inflammation and the suppression of white blood cell release of inflammation causing compounds. (9) A prickly pear extract was found to inhibit chronic joint inflammation in a study using mice (7) and to significantly increase wound healing in rats. (8)
So it seems the Aztecs, the Spanish missionaries, and the cowboys alike were smart to use various parts of the prickly pear to cure both chronic joint problems and out on the range accidents. However, a French research scientist, Gilles Gutierrez, believes that prickly pear is much more than a remedy for arthritic joints and thrown out backs. He feels it is the ideal supplement for anyone leading an active life.
At his institute in Malta, Gutierrez established that professional athletes were able to go longer and harder while using a prickly pear extract. Even more importantly, they recovered from strenuous exercise more rapidly when taking the pear.
According to Gutierrez, the key to this action is prickly pears ability to stimulate the production of the bodies’ natural restorative compounds. During stressful exercise the body produces compounds known as heat shock proteins. These compounds help the body heal itself after a work out. The researcher has established that the body synthesizes more heat shock proteins when dosed with his prickly pear extract. (10) His conclusion? To power up a workout and speed recovery from that work out, take regular doses of prickly pear extract.
As our population ages, anti-aging remedies are becoming increasingly important. Here too the pear may make a unique contribution. One of the sad realities of getting older is that we heal less rapidly. When you put your back out at 50 it stays out a lot longer than it did when you were 20. Research indicates that as we age we produce fewer heat shock proteins. Fewer heat shock proteins means slower recovery from exercise or injury. Prickly pear, with its ability to increase heat shock protein production, may put the very thing we need to put the spring back in our step.
Intrigued by these new uses for the pear, I decided to run a little clinical trial on Gutierrez’s prickly pear extract. I gave the extract to a number of non-professional aging athletes who had complained about not having the same recuperative power they once had. My test subjects included a doctor, a management agent, a lawyer, and myself. Our findings? All parties found that after using the extract, we had more energy for a work out and recovered more rapidly from said work out. You know, less soreness, muscle fatigue, weekend quarterback paralysis, etc.
This really brings the story full circle. When I first ran into prickly pear, it was suggested as a tool to increase resistance to strain, in that case, resistance to the heat of the desert summer.
In the world of herbal medicine, plants that increase your general strength and well being are called resistogens. They help the body resist stress. It could be the stress of too much heat, or, the stress of over exertion, mental or physical. The moral of the story is that prickly pear stimulates health and who doesn’t need a touch of that.
The best news is that prickly pear fruits and pads are available in most grocery stores in America. If you don’t find them there, you will certainly find them at the Latin markets that have popped up around the country. The big question becomes this. What to do with them?
As for the fruit, I suggest making a lovely punch. Take 10 prickly pear fruits, mash them with a potato masher until really well squished. Add the juice of four lemons to the mash. Then, add two cups of raw pure sugar to the mix. Then, add one gallon of water the mix. Stir thoroughly, strain, and pop in the refrigerator.
The other alternative is to buy the prickly pear pads and use them in salads. Buy the fresh pads and peel them. Drop them in boiling water and blanch thoroughly. Then, cut the pads in strips. Cover the strips with your favorite vinaigrette and let marinate overnight. Then, serve just as a salad.
To really get the medicinal benefits of the prickly pear, probably the best way to go is to buy prickly pear juice. This makes it easy and convenient. Good news. Natalie McGee, of Arizona Cactus Ranch, has been making a 100% pure juice and pulp prickly pear nectar for the last 21 years, and is still making this wonderful juice available today. Run, don’t walk to the phone to get a bottle of her amazing nectar. The phone is 800-582-9903 and her website is WWW.ArizonaCactusRanch.com.
1. Pesman, Walter. Meet Flora Mexicana. Dale S. King publishing. Arizona. 1962. Page 20-22.
2. Magana y Jorda .Plantas Medicinales. Arbol editorial. Mexico. 1981. P.142.
3. Curtin, LSM. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande Rydal Press. Sante Fe. P133-136
4. Ford, Karen. Las Yerbas de la Gente, A Study of Hispano-American medicine Plants. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1975. P.246.
5. Morton, Julia. Atlas of Medicinal Plants of Middle America. Bahamas to Yucatan. Charles C Thomas, Sprinfield. P. 607.
6. Lee et al. Effect of Opuntia ficus-indica var.saboten on gastric damages in rats. Arch Pharm Res 2002 Feb; 25(1):67-70.
7. Park EH et al. Anti-inflammatory principle from cactus. Fitoterapia 2001 March; 72(3):288-90.
8 . Park EH et al. Wound healing activity of Opuntia ficus-indica. Fiterapia 2001 Feb; 72(2):165-7
9 . Park EH et al. Studies on the pharmacological action of cactus: identification of its anti-inflammatory effect. Arch Pharm Res 1998 Feb; 21(1):30-4.
1 0 . Company provided clinical trials.