Nine Interesting Facts About Prickly Pear

Prickly pear cacti plant photographed against sky blue background

Like most cactus species the prickly pear, or Opuntia, is native to North and South America. It’s only by way of human intervention that it has spread to other parts of the world. You can find prickly pears in great numbers in Mexico as well as in the American southwest and throughout the Rocky Mountains. So it’s only natural that the team at Rocky Mountain Soda has developed our own Pikes Peak Prickly Pear vegan and kosher natural soda using only the finest prickly pear flavor extract. But more on that later. For now, read on to learn nine interesting facts about prickly pear.

Most people in the west and southwest can instantly recognize the prickly pear cactus, but they still don’t know much about them. To bridge the knowledge gap we present nine things you probably didn’t know about the Opuntia cactus.

#1: They Don’t Mind the Cold

Although they’re native to the hot desert regions of the United States and Mexico where temperatures can regularly exceed 100° Fahrenheit the prickly pear has no fear of the cold. In fact, some species of Opuntia can tolerate temperatures as cold as -30° Fahrenheit (-34C). That means the prickly pear has one of the widest temperature tolerances of any plant on Earth.

#2: Prickly Pear Is Loaded With Important Nutrients

Fresh prickly pear is rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals and is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties that may boost the immune system. Research also suggests that eating the prickly pear plant (as opposed to drinking prickly pear soda) may help boost liver function, improve digestion and help prevent an array of other maladies.

#3: Like Most Cactus Species It Doesn’t Need Much Water

For the past decade, the US Southwest has been gripped by a punishing drought that has shriveled lawns and killed trees by the millions. It’s so bad that the federal government is warning that Lake Powell and Lake Meade may soon reach the dreaded “dead pool” status. But while state after state shrivels up like a prune, prickly pears seem little bothered. That’s because this hardy plant needs little water and has a novel method of performing photosynthesis, absorbing CO2 at night and breaking it down into sugar during the day.

#4: Prickly Pear “Leaves” Aren’t Really Leaves

The wide, flat, green part of the prickly pear that everyone assumes are its leaves are actually flattened stems used to store water and generate flowers. (Those stems are also a popular foodstuff that is chopped, diced, fried, and otherwise included in hundreds of recipes.) The potentially painful spines protruding from these flattened stems are the actual leaves and they become harder and more potentially painful as they age.

#5: Prickly Pears Are Not Welcome Everywhere

While we think of prickly pear as being part of the fabric of the southwest and Rocky Mountains, people who live in other countries aren’t so willing to embrace it. In parts of Europe and Africa it was introduced for decorative purposes but soon got out of control and is now considered a major invasive species that torments local people with its spiny, unforgiving leaves.

#6: Some Insects That Live on the Prickly Pear Are Used To Make Dyes

The cochineal, a tiny insect that’s fond of the Opuntia plant is collected and used to make a type of red dye. The dye has been used by people of Central and North America for centuries to color clothing, rugs, and other textiles. The same insects when ground are used to make food coloring.

#7: Prickly Pear Wore Out Its Welcome in Australia

Above we talked about how prickly pear is loathed in some countries in Europe and Africa. However, perhaps no one has a bigger issue with it than Australians. The Opuntia was brought from America to Australia in 1788 so that those insects that are so fond of it could be used to dye the red coats of the British soldiers there. By the early 20th century, nearly 60 million acres of Australian farmland were overwhelmed by the plant.

#8: The Fruit of the Prickly Pear Is Delicious

Prickly pear fruit, which springs from those big, flat, leaf-like stems, is said to taste a bit like watermelon. The fruit (known by different people as “cactus fruit”, “cactus fig”, “Indian fig” and “tuna”) has been a staple of the native Central American diet for centuries and today is used to make candy and jam. We use an extract of the fruit to make our gluten-free and vegan Pikes Peak Prickly Pear natural soda.

#9: The Prickly Pear Has Political Significance

While most people (in the US anyway) aren’t aware of it, the prickly pear appears on the official Mexican coat of arms. It is reportedly there to remind citizens of the difficulties and trials the country has endured in the past and that are likely to occur in the future.

Order Prickly Pear Soda From Rocky Mountain Soda Company!

The prickly pear is more than postcard fodder for southwestern tourist traps. It’s an integral part of the local landscape and culture and has had far more influence on the ebb and flow of events than most will give it credit for. To find out why prickly pear has been such a culinary favorite for centuries take home a 12-pack of our Rocky Mountain Prickly Pear gluten-free natural soda today.