Native Prairie Plants - Prickly Pear Cactus

Is there anything more beautiful in late spring than a clump of gorgeous, soft yellow Opuntia polycantha blossoms? This plant, otherwise known as the prickly pear cactus, is a familiar sight in the dry coulees around Lethbridge. It is also widespread from northern Mexico and across the great plains of Canada and the United States. Early Spaniards took plants from Mexico to Europe where it has now spread through southern Europe, Africa and into parts of Asia. After blooming, the fruit of this little plant is just as well protected by spines as the plant itself.

Despite its unwelcoming exterior, the prickly pear cactus is another plant that was used in a multitude of ways by people living on the prairies. It was a staple food source: the flat-paddle-shaped segments are similar to green beans and are high in calcium, phosphorous, antioxidants and vitamin C. The fruit was eaten fresh or could be mashed and dried to be stored for winter. It is still a common vegetable in Mexico.

The prickly pear “paddles” or nopales contain a mucilaginous liquid that had many medicinal uses including as protection from the sun or as a poultice to speed healing in open wounds.

The texture inside is a bit sticky (not unlike okra) when cooked and could be rubbed over painted designs to fix the colours. And this same sticky juice, when a freshly cut stem was placed in a container of muddy water, would clear the water of suspended particles.

Alex Johnston, in his paper for the Lethbridge Historical Society in 1987, indicated that “to treat rheumatism, the Blackfoot inserted the spines of this cactus into the flesh of the patient, then set them afire and let them burn to the surface of the skin. This treatment helped the patient to forget about his aches and pains.” Ouch!