The Medicinal Plant Garden

of Birmingham-Southern College

  • Opuntia humifusa
  • Opuntia humifusa

Common Name

Eastern prickly pear, Devil’s-tongue, or Indian Fig

Related Species

All Opuntia cacti.

Geographic Distribution and Habitat

Prickly pear cactus is found in the United States east of Montana as well as in Ontario, Canada (USDA).

Description

Prickly pear cactus is a perennial paddle cactus that grows in dry areas in sandy or rocky soil. As its descriptor suggests, it is a flattened, paddle-shaped cactus and has two sets of barbed bristles. Its flowers are large, waxy, and yellow, usually with a reddish center. The fruit of the prickly pear looks like a common fig, thus “Indian fig”. (USDA; UTA Wildflower Database).

Portion of the Plant Used

Virtually every part of the prickly pear has been used in some way.

Traditional Uses

Medicinally, O. humifusa has been used by Native Americans to treat wounds (peeled leaf pads), warts (juice), and lung ailments (leaf pad tea) (Foster and Duke, 2000). A current use of prickly pear is in mixology; prickly pear margaritas are very popular in parts of the southern United States (UTA Wildflower Database). Its fruits can be eaten raw and are often used in jellies. The leaf pad can be cut and cooked like okra or used to thicken soups (Moerman, 1998).

Research

Prickly pear is being researched as an anticancer drug for colon cancer. Kim, et al. (2013) found that its bioactive compounds have a potential to prevent cancer of the colon but also found that it was not effective in preventing or treating breast cancer.

Researchers have found that it increases bone density by modulating parathyroid hormone and osteocalcin (Kang et al., 2012) and insulin sensitivity by up-regulating expression of insulin-responsive proteins (Kang et al., 2013) in rats whose diets were supplemented with prickly pear homogenate. Hahm et al. (2011) also found that it possesses potential hypoglycemic and hypolipidemic activities in diabetic rats.

Prickly pear is being looked at cosmetically. Yeom et al. (2011) found that facial masks containing extract from the plant could improve moisture, brightness, and elasticity of skin.

Side Effects, Interactions, and Contraindications

O. humifusa lowers blood sugar and should be taken with care by individuals with diabetes as well as those about to have surgery (Kang et al., 2012).