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Depending on the location, prickly pears are either loved or despised. Widely known as tuna fruit in the Hispanic community, these segmented orbs of desert cacti have been used as food, drink and medicine for centuries in Central and South America, particularly Mexico, but can be found transplanted in many other arid regions like Mediterranean Europe. The thorny plants are protected in areas of the American Southwest, but loathed in places like Australia, where they are considered weeds and often killed on sight.
Tuna fruit belongs to the Opuntia genus of cacti, also known as the nopales cactus. These plants are found in large clusters of thorny paddled segments, often blossoming in vivid purple then gradually shifting to a light green hue. The plants are native to the dryest regions of the Americas but have spread to dry regions throughout the world.
In places like Greece, Italy and other arid Mediterranean regions, the cacti have been largely accepted. They can also be found clinging to life in more frigid climates along the Great Lakes and into Canada. Tuna fruit can be found growing North Africa and South Africa as well.
In other locations, like Australia and the island of Nevis in the West Indies, tuna fruit cacti have been hunted by targeted infestations of moth larvae. These efforts aimed to destroy what officials in those places deemed to be an invasive species of weeds. American states are now blaming the Caribbean eradication effort for other, more current infestations of moths. This western environmentalists state is ironically threatening protected tuna fruit populations in the American Southwest and Mexico.
To many in the western hemisphere where it originated, the tuna fruit is a valuable medicinal resource. The plant's wealth of antioxidants and alkaloids are hailed for its nutritional benefits, and recent research is aimed at isolating certain strains of this cacti that might work as a treatment for diabetes. Though the jury is still out on whether that cure will come, it has been used as a folk remedy for centuries by indigenous populations to ease the bowels and heal damaged skin. Fermented prickly pear also forms the base for a traditional Mexican alcohol called colonche, which combines hallucinatory and sedative effects.
Some may look at a tuna fruit and think it might be hard to prepare or eat. Once the gloves are donned though, all worried can end. To reach the edible parts inside, the top and bottom of the paddle are cut off, and then a slit is made from end to end, which allows the skin to be peeled away. Inside is a fruit that can be sliced or diced and added to a salad — seeds and all — or blended intensely into a juice. This juice can be drank as it is or added to other juices for a cocktail.
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