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Opuntia ficus indica Mill also known as prickly pear

Nopal, Tuna or Prickly Pears
Nopal, Tuna or Prickly Pears

Opuntia ficus indica Mill 

Synonyms: Many times it is called based on place of origin, tuna, nopal, nopalitos, in Spain they are called “chumbera” or “fig chumbero”, in France the one of “figue de indie”, in the United States it is called ” prickly pear or indian fig “, in Arabic means thorny, in Argentina ” tuna de Castilla “, in Chile ” tuna “, in Germany ” Kactus Feige “. Nopalitos are the tender cladodes that are consumed especially in Mexico as vegetables


The Opuntia ficus indica Mill or nopales   are native to Mexico and are located almost in the majority of ecological conditions existing in the Mexican Republic, form vegetations called thickets crasicaules, which occupy about three million hectares. The prickly pears are represented in the insignia of the motherland. They are perennial arboreal plants, provided with a well defined stem and branched from the base. They can reach up to four or five meters in height and have a long productive life. Its roots are usually deep, protecting the soil against erosion.


The stem is cylindrical or discoidal, similar to a tennis racket, called cladiolo, palette or penca, almost always fleshy, rarely woody, usually provided with spines that are located in cavities called alveoli, dark green .


They have quite small leaves that fall quickly and are replaced by a set of thorns.


The flowers are hermaphroditic, with yellow-greenish sepals and light yellow petals, with a diameter of 7.5 to 10 cm.


The fruit is an ovoid berry of juicy and fleshy consistency of 5 to 9 cm in length, yellow-green or red-green, among other tonalities, with pericarp of coriaceous texture, naked or spiny, sometimes edible.

Producing countries

Mexico, Spain, Portugal , Greece , Italy , Israel , Australia , the United States(California), Peru , Argentina , Colombia and Chile.


The nopal for its optimal development requires an annual temperature between 18 and 25ºC, supporting a maximum temperature of 35ºC. The low temperatures affect the crop, being able to cause until its death, reason why its tolerance to minimum temperatures is in the order of 10 to 0ºC, although certain species can bear low temperatures of up to 16ºC below zero, provided that these periods are not prolonged . The nopal develops well in arid and very arid climates with rains in summer. A very important factor that affects cactus is the relative humidity, as it increases, the plant is in conditions less conducive to its development and fruiting and is more prone to the attack of pests and diseases .

With regard to rainfall it is not demanding, with 125 mm of rain per year can live well and can hold up to 1300 mm of water per year, it develops well in latitudes ranging from 800 and 2500 meters above the level of the sea (msnm), although it can thrive outside this range, it has been reported from sea level to 3000 meters above sea level. There are useful species in the stabilization of coastal dunes such as O.stricta var. dillenii.

Ground and soil

The prickly pears develop well in volcanic soils, but also thrive well in the calcareous of frank texture: sandy loam, loamy-sandy-clay and loamy soils and gravelly soils, of medium depth, with pH preferably alkaline between 6.5 to 8.5, and do not tolerate heavy soils, the best soil is the gravel.

The requirements mentioned for the tuna are of a generic nature and not limiting, being able to observe adult plants with apparent good development on strongly rocky terrains, on thin and poor lands and on lateritic lands.

It is logical to assume that on land for agricultural use, the prickly pear must prosper much better than in its xerophilous environment, but this practice is not convenient for the following reasons:

The tuna evolved to develop in arid zones and the rational use of vegetal species consists precisely in locating in the lands for which not only they have capacity of survival, but of production. The very fertile soils and with abundant humidity can be harmful for the prickly pear, reducing its production and resistance to diseases.

In this sense, the prickly pear should not replace the agricultural crop, as far as land is concerned, and should be procured a soil where agriculture ceases to be profitable. This is the kindness of this species; in obtaining important income in lands where before it was not possible to develop other crops.


Although the tuna is a fruit tree that can tolerate drought without much problem, it responds well to watering . The prickly pear can easily hold up to 125 mm of water per year at least.

Excess water can cause root rot and the lack of a dry period, can make the plant not to bear flower, lacking the stress of drought needed for it. Tuna plantations in the Mediterranean regions are not irrigated but sometimes irrigation is used during fruit development and flowering only.

When the plantations have a fruit sale , drip watering and gravity can be used, but sometimes in certain countries drip irrigation is expensive.

Once the plantation has been carried out, the irrigation must be applied immediately, according to the type of soil, of which another irrigation must be applied between the next 5-15 days, with which its activity begins; later the other irrigations are carried out one for that reason every two months, leaving to irrigate in times of rains, being better the system of irrigation by gravity if they are in furrows well defined.


In the Mediterranean, fertigation experiments have been carried out using fertilizers Nitrogen – Phosphorus – Potassium (NPK). The production of buds or flower buds is very scarce, but with the application of NPK, during the winter, production increases in spring. Approximately the doses of fertilizers in the cultivation of the adult tuna are of, 120 kg N, 90 kg P and 160 kg K / ha / year (Duarte, 1999). Cattle manure it increases production, retains moisture and enriches the soil, increasing its fertility and contributing to its restoration and protection, which is why it is also considered a good stabilizer of bare and eroded land. The fertilization in the first year will be 2 to 4 kg of manure per plant.


The propagation of the prickly pear, can be made sexually and asexually, but commercially the second one is used:

Seeds, with this type of propagation, although the germination is fast, the subsequent development of the plant is slow and very susceptible to the strong winds and torrential rains, hence it is not highly recommended.

Vegetative, is done using a penca (pallet) or portion of it. It is fast and effective, compared to seed propagation since the development of plants is safe and resists natural factors.

It is also more precocious and reproduces exactly the characteristic of the mother plant. The picked piles, previous selection, must be cured and dried, in order to avoid the rotting of the same; for this purpose, they should be scattered on the ground, taking care not to pile them up and keep them in shade for a period of 10 to 15 days, until the wound has healed completely and loses its turgor, proving this when both faces have wrinkles.

It is preferable to select leaves from plants older than 2 years, ovoid, from 25 to 45 cm in length, depending on the species. It should be noted that the scar of the union with the mother plant is completely sealed, whole, without damage to the surface and free of insects and fungi . In case of scarcity, pieces of stalks can be used, giving each stalk about 2 or 3 pieces.

Most used patterns. It has been proven to make grafts on creeping nopal (Opuntia rastrero) with species that have higher yields, another pattern is the frost-resistant nopal from Las Tunas since it can withstand up to 14 ° C below zero; so most of the species and varieties of nopal that produce fruits that are developed, can not withstand low temperatures for long periods. So far the effective method of grafting has been the wedge, has been used as a cementing maceration of rootstock of Opuntia rastrera, properly treated with fungicides to prevent some diseases.

Purposes for what is grown and most important species

The purposes for which it is grown and the cultivated species are classified according to the use that is given to the product, since it can be used as human food , forage for livestock and ornamental value.

Among the wild species are the subgenus of Opuntia, which are: Cylidropuntia and Platyopuntia, other wild species of fodder interest are: Opuntia robusta, O. lidheimeri, O. cantabrigiensis, O. rastrera, O. imbricata, O. macrocentra, O Chrysacanta, O. lucens, O. azurea.

Among the fruit producing species are:  Opuntia amyclara, O. megacantha, O. streptacantha, O. ficus indica, O. robusta, O. hyptiacantha.

Among the vegetable producing species are: The species Opuntia ficus indica, is the one that is commonly used for vegetable production, although in general of the other species its shoots are also used for the same purpose. Among the ornamental value species is Opuntia microdasys

Normal distancing

It is necessary to select and prepare the land before planting, conditioning it in the best possible way in terraces, edges or contour lines, depending on the slope. In cases of rocky soils it is advisable to prepare holes of 40 x 40 cm. individually for each plant.

The plantations can be rain fed, irrigated and mixed. It is preferable to use leaves that have completed their period of dehydration by planting them vertically or inclined in order to facilitate their enrichment placing them with the wounds healed down and burying half or 2/3 in the soil.

The plantation, depending on the form of irrigation, will be in the form of rows, at a distance of 2 meters between plant and plant and 4 meters between rows, requiring 8m² per plant, with a total of 1250 plants / ha. It should be noted that the distancing of the plantation can be variable, depending much on the quality, the slope of the terrain and the driving system.

Growth and development

It is a succulent shrub , more than three meters high, trunk manifest, cylindrical and suberous. The growth of the stems is vertical, these are flattened photosynthesising or cladodes, generally smooth, sometimes slightly prominent in the areolas, green glaucous, of variable shapes, ovate, spatulate, narrowed at the base, elliptical, with the presence of janas or glochid . The new cladodes show the true leaves that are small and ephemeral, disappearing when they reach a certain development, which occurs between 30 and 40 days.

The capacity for regeneration is almost exclusively linked to the characteristics of the species’ ability to multiply agamic or vegetatively. Thus, in the place where the cladodes or pieces of plant fall, they root easily and generate new plants. Outside of the places where there are tunales it is not common to find plants of this species, unless they have been scattered pieces of plants occasionally. Although the fruit contains numerous seeds, and that it is consumed by many birds , there is no history of this type of natural dissemination.


The flower is produced from the areolas of the upper edge (possibly also of the flat part) of young pencas, usually from the previous year. Each areola usually produces a flower, although not in the same time of flowering, since some can bounce in the first year and in others to the second, or the third. The flower remains open only during the 24 hours. From the formation of the floral bud to the opening of the corolla, it takes about 55 days. Generally the flower is hermaphrodite, although in some cases it can be dioecious, the style is cylindrical, and the stigma lobed (from 5 to 10 lobes), the androceo possesses a large quantity of stamens .

The flowers are large, with petals of bright colors: yellow , white , orange, red , pink salmon, depending on the species, the ovary is infernal, with a single cavity but formed by several carpel, with numerous anatrope ovules with very long funicles that When they develop they become fleshy and they form the pulp of the fruit , where the seedsare included .

Type of fruit

They are unilocular, polyspermic, fleshy, (or pulpy) and edible berries; its dimensions and colorations vary according to the species, being fruits of 4 to 12 cm or more in length, of yellow, orange, red, cherry, purple, green or white colors. It is a fruit of short cycle, since its development is about 120 days from the fruit set. The edible part or pulp, consists of a pseudoparenchyma formed by papillary structures with foniculas that have widened and that surround the ovules.

The fruit develops better in full sun , but it can support shade that reduces production and lengthens the ripening period. When the flavor of the pulp is sweet it is called tuna and when it is acid xoconostles in Mexico.

Type of seed

The seeds are lenticular, with clear testa and wide aril curved embryo, large cotyledons and well developed perisperm. The number of seeds per fruit can vary from 77 to 410, depending on the species and the size varies from 2.5 to 4 mm.

Years to go into production

The production of nopal begins at 3 years after planting, using the tender shoots as a vegetable, but a crop in full production is reached approximately the fifth year.

Years of useful life

The longevity of cactus plantations is from 5 to 7 years, sometimes reaching up to 20 and 25 years with good yields.

Pruning requirements

At the beginning it is about balancing the plant so that it forms a symmetrical body in branches of similar size so that there is a balance.

The purpose of pruning is to maintain the plant at a height of 1.60-1.80 m, in addition to eliminating all the vegetation poorly located, aged and not fruitful. To obtain a good fruiting and fruit quality, it is necessary to carry out the following operations:

  • Pruning of flowers: the prickly pears usually present great formation of flowers. In order not to exhaust the plants it is recommended to thin flowers every two years. In a practical way it has been observed that thinning of flowers delays production and prolongs the harvest period.
  • Thinning of shoots: along with the flowers appear the shoots, which are the future fruitful segments. When the shoots are excessive in quantity, it is advisable to thin them when they are tender, leaving two new segments for an old segment. Unrefined plants tend not to bear fruit the following year.
  • Fruit thinning: it is recommended to leave between 8 and 10 per pallet to obtain fruits of good size and quality (150 to 200 g per fruit).

In practice, farmers consider that this operation is not necessary because the fruit fits on the palette, prolonging its petiole and because, as the maturation is staggered, the harvest of the fruit would serve as thinning. However, it is possible that when thinning fruit, it tends to have a more homogeneous maturity.

Most important pests and control

The tuna plants are attacked by various species of insects , causing deterioration of their normal development and production, one of them is the insect known as cochineal (Dactylopius indica Green), which feeds on sap, which is used by man as raw material in obtaining carminic acid. This beneficial plague of the prickly pear can be handled through the application of cultural measures (irrigation, fertilization, collection of adult insects.), So that the normal growth of the plants is possible and the insect does not weaken them much.

Another of the pests that affect the cultivation of the prickly pear is the insect known as “moth of the tuna” or “Worm of the cactus” (Cactoblastis cactorum), the plants attacked present dark spots with exudations or “weeping”. When the attack is severe the cladodes rot almost completely and fall off. For the control, 85% carbaryl or 40% methidathion can be used, these products must be applied in sprays until the point of dripping, at the moment when it is in the egg state.

There is also the boll weevil (Cactophagus spinulae Gyll.), The boll weevil (Cilindrocoptorus biradiatus Champs.), The white cactus worm (Lanifera cyclades Druce.), The zebra worm (Olycella nephelepsa Dyar.), These pests attack mainly in a larval stage, for which it is important to determine its biological cycle to proceed with its control.

Most important diseases

Another fundamental factor that affects the development of this cactus, are the diseases, among which stand out bacteriosis ( Pseudomonas sp), stain or drying of the penca (Alternaria sp), cercosporiosis (Cercospora sp) as a form of control is recommended the elimination and burning of the plants, or part of them that are attacked.

Weed control

The control of weeds is the same as in any crop, the manual form can be used if there is sufficient labor available in the area and if the prices of the product pay for the use of this resource. Another way to control weeds is the use of mulch between the rows of the crop, and the last form is the use of herbicides, in this case we must use specific herbicides for weeds and be careful in costs, basically choose the herbicide that is most effective and that adapts to our costs.

Time of flowering

Usually, the beginning of sprouting and flowering occurs at the beginning of the warm season (during the months of Marchto May in the northern hemisphere ) regardless of the occurrence of rainfall, although there are regions whose flowering times may be August to September or November to December , depending on the species or variety.

Harvest time

The harvest season usually occurs between the months of June and August in the northern hemisphere, it is advisable to harvest with protective gloves to avoid damage to the collector and the fruit, which must be detached just from the insertion on the stem of preference in the morning, taking advantage of the absence of dew and preventing the thorns from causing any damage.

Moment of harvest

Harvesting is carried out depending on what the product is destined for, since if it is for vegetables, the cladodes will be harvested in a tender state. If the fruit is to be eaten mature, harvest criteria such as color and taste are taken into account. They also depend on the varieties, four basic colors are differentiated: yellow, silver or white fruits, silver with reddish pulp and without thorns and purple pulp. For the cochineal, 3-4 annual collections of adult females using brushes are made

Redeeming estimated per hectare:
The yield of a plantation depends directly on the management received and the age of the plantation.

Product preservation

The fruit is kept commercialized for up to 15 days, in Mexico the export fruit is subjected to a waxing during its post-harvest. In experiments carried out in Chile, this fruit has been maintained for up to 4-5 months in a refrigerator at 0 ° C, with 90 to 95% humidity. You can also freeze the pulp indefinitely for the production of ice cream.


The fruit processed through the cooking of the juice until the concentration of the sugars, is a characteristic dark and sweet syrup, called “arrope de tuna”, which is consumed at the family level or sold at a very small scale as a traditional artisanal product. They also use it in various forms of processing, for the preparation of sweets, jellies and jams and marmalade . Other uses of the species that are elaborated and marketed in other countries such as Mexico , Italy , Spain , South Africa , Chile , Brazil , include juices, tunas in syrup, glaze, raisins, fruit pulp for the preparation of ice creams, tuna honey, tuna cheese, vinegars , seed oils, pectins and adhesives.

It is also industrialized as dehydrated nopal, which is marketed in bottles of 90 capsules of 400 mg, which helps reduce blood glucose levels, total cholesterol and triglycerides ; It serves as a coadjuvant in obesity treatments, helps in cases of constipation improving the function of the digestive tract and controls the symptoms of diabetes achieving a satisfactory stability of blood sugar and avoiding reaching unwanted levels.

Other times it has been used for its sugarand nitrogen content as an excellent resource to produce alcohol or alcoholic beverages.

Main uses

The current and potential uses of cactus are very varied:

  • Vegetable, either fresh or canned, in brine or marinade.
  • Fresh fruit, desserts, fresh and even alcoholic beverages .
  • Fodder (leaves, prickly pears or shells) either directly, scorched, ground or silage. The ground seed is used in the feeding of pigs .
  • Sweets (crystallized from leaves or prickly pears, jam, honey, marshmallow and “tuna cheese”).
  • Educolorants.
  • Flours
  • Extraction of tuna pectin for the preparation of jams and jellies.
  • Extraction of oil and seed flour.
  • Concentrated juice of prickly pear, liquid or powder.
  • Fences or hedges, family gardens, plots and plots.
  • Formation and conservation of the soil.
  • Fixing of dunes: Home remedies where all parts of the cactus are used, both vegetative and reproductive.
  • Raw material in the industry for the manufacture of cosmetics and toiletries, as well as drugs, fructose, pectin, anticorrosives, glues and adhesives, synthetic rubber.
  • Binder or paint or lime fixative
  • Fuel (firewood).
  • Decoration plant.
  • Water rinse
  • Fixing paint to water or lime paint.

Nutritious composition

Nutritional composition of the prickly pear or nopal.


Protein 0.8%

Fat 0.7%

Fiber 0.1%

Minerals 0.1%

Vitamin C 60 mg

Citric acid / 100 gr of fruit.

Pectin 0.19%

Seed & Protein 5%

Fiber 56%

Starch 23%

Oil 5%

Opuntia microdasys

Genus Opuntia

Nopal or prickly pear marmalade