What is Opuntia?

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  • Written By: Dee S.
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2019
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Opuntia, commonly called paddle cactus or nopales, is the genus name that covers approximately 200 species of cactus, including the prickly pear cactus. Although it is commonly used as a food source, in alcoholic drinks, and in the production of dyes, it is also used for medical purposes. Many people believe that opuntia works to treat stomach ailments and diabetes. Other people use it to help wounds heal, to treat urinary track infections, and to cure nausea from drinking excessive alcohol.

Native to the Western Hemisphere, specifically the southwestern portion of North America, opuntina prefers sandy soils and warm temperatures. Since it grows easily in dry climates, it is now cultivated in most desert or arid areas of the world. It typically grows low to the ground and has sharp needles on its broad cactus pads. Depending on the species, it can have red, yellow, or green fruit. The flowers also vary according the species and are most commonly red, yellow, pink, or purple.

Some research has indicated that the pectin located in the fruit of some species of opuntia may reduce a diabetic person’s reliance on insulin. The pads and fruit are high in fibers and are absorbed into the body very slowly. As a result, it works to maintain blood sugar stability. Since preliminary research has shown that only certain species work to stabilize blood sugar levels, additional research is needed to find out which species are most effective.


Other medical uses of opuntia include its ability to treat diarrhea and upset stomachs. Scientist are studying which species work to treat these disorders, as some species seem to have no effect at all. In the alternative, other species work to significantly reduce dry mouth, nausea and appetite loss, especially when these conditions are the result of drinking excessive alcohol.

There are many other medical uses for the opuntia as well. Its flowers are often used by Native American tribes to treat urinary track infections. In addition, the pads of opuntia are sometimes ground and used for digestive purposes. Specifically, it is believed to be helpful in bringing nutrients to the liver and pancreas.

The leaves of the opuntia are sometimes ground into a pulp as well. Some Native American groups apply the pulp to their skin as a moisturizer and as a barrier to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Opuntia is also used to treat spider bites, boils, and sore breasts. In addition, it is often used by homeopathic medicine practitioners to treat fevers and inflammation.


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