Opuntia ficus-indica*

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Related Links
Flower of Opuntia ficus-india.
© Scheinvar L.
Rooted plant from a cladode 9 months after planting.
© Inglese P.
The red fruit of the 'nudosa' cultivar from South Africa.
© Wessels A.
The spineless selection of the cactus pear is utilized in Ethiopia as cattle feed. Hoewever, the cactus pear readily reverts back to its original spiny form (prickly pear). This form is too spiny to be utilized by cattle without scorching off the spines.
© Zimmermann HG
An impenetrable infestation of prickly pear at Fonteinplaats near Graaf Reinet, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Photo taken in 1939 before biocontrol measures were taken to address this problem.
© Pettey FW
Chemical control of prickly pear through injection with mono-sodium methane arsonate (MSMA).
© Zimmermann HG
Cactus pear fruits are used for producing a popular liqueur in South Africa.
© Zimmermann HG
In Mexico, fruits and cladodes of cactus pear are utilized extensively for medicinal products, cosmetics as well as various culinary uses. Utilization of this plant in South Africa for such purposes has also increased recently.
© Zimmermann HG
The national emblem of Mexico is an eagle perched on a cactus pear plant. According to legend a Aztec chief announced that he would built his capital where an eagle perched. The eagle caught a snake and perched on a cactus pear plant. Mexico City was buil
© Hoffmann W
Spines at Kula, Maui, Hawaii
© Forest and Kim Starr

Local names:
Afrikaans (boer(e) turksvy,doringblaar,grootdoringturksvy,kaalblaar), Arabic (beles), English (Indian pricklypear,Indian fig,mission prickly pear,prickly pear,Spanish tuna), French (Indischer Feigenkaktus,Figuier d'Inde), Italian (Pero pungente,eico d'In

Opuntia ficus-indica is a shrub or tree up to 5 m tall, forming sturdy trunk with age. Joints flattened, narrowly elliptic to ovate, varying in size, 30-60 cm long and 6-12 cm broad, attenuate below, often acute above, fairly thick, glaucous-green; areoles small to large, raised and woolly, with 3-6 radiating, unequally long, greyish white spines up to 3 (-10) cm long, straight or occasionally slightly curved, or spineless (in older plants and some cultivars).

Leaves, if developed, are minute, subulate and early deciduous.

Flowers about 7 cm long; hypanthium broadly cylindrical, contracted below, with numerous raised areoles spirally arranged, densely wooly and filled with glochidia, occasionally also bearing small spines and minute leaves; petaloid segments yellow or orange.

Fruits ellipsoid, about 7 cm long, reddish, succulent, edible.

Seeds about 5 mm long.

There is a distinction between the spiny naturalized pears, which are invasive weeds and the cultivated, spine-less ones. The latter exits in several cultivars eg. O. ficus-indica forma inermis O. ficus-indica forma amyclaea and O. ficus-indica forma elongata.


Pricky pears are generally not confined to deserts. Many grow in grasslands, woodlands and some in moist tropical forests. O. ficus-indica in particular is native to sub-tropical uplands. The development of O. ficus-indica is restricted in the Mediterranean basin by the winter cold temperatures. The spiny, naturalized pear is recorded as a pest in part of South Africa and Australia.

Native range

Tree management

Plantations are established at different levels according to the utilization and local conditions. In traditional fruit production operations, plants are established quite densely, with some 5 000 or more individual plants/ha. Fodder planting is governed by the conditions under which the exploitation, harvesting and transportation is done: 3 000-5 000 plants/ha is common. Modern plantations, under mechanized cultivation, harvesting and transportation to the site of consumption by tractor and trailer, are planted at a density of 1 000-2 000 plants/ha, with a spacing of 5-7 m between the rows and 1-2 m along the rows.

Maintenance and weeding are done by 2-4 shallow disk plowings per year in the fall and spring, with or without the inclusion of manure.

Plantations are exploitable after 4-5 years and fully grown after 7-10 years; when well managed, some are known to have remained productive for more than 50 years. Irrigation calls for some precautions, direct contact of the aerial parts of the plants with water must be avoided in order to prevent cryptogamic and bacterial diseases.

By pruning and grazing, the plants are encouraged to develop trunks up to 3 m high and are then left to branch freely, in time forming a dense canopy 4-5 m high.

Pricky pears are generally not confined to deserts. Many grow in grasslands, woodlands and some in moist tropical forests. O. ficus-indica in particular is native to sub-tropical uplands. The development of O. ficus-indica is restricted in the Mediterranean basin by the winter cold temperatures. The spiny, naturalized pear is recorded as a pest in part of South Africa and Australia.

It is easily cultivated through vegetative propagation from segments. Before propagation, the segments should be exposed to diffuse sunlight for 7-15 days, to partially wither them. This process improves rooting. The segments are then planted in rows. They require slight watering and occasional hoeing, during dry weather.

Planting shrubs and particularly cacti is one of the easiest to rehabilitate degraded landscapes. Cacti, because of their easy establishment by vegetative propagation, are amenable to the rehabilitation of lands that could not be reclaimed through conventional agricultural methods because of their steep slope and other physical factor limitations. In Tunisia and Algeria for instance, stony and rocky slope have been rehabilitated by planting cacti on contours.

Erosion control: Cactus hedges play a major role in erosion control and land-slope partitioning particularly when established along contours. The hedge is a physical obstacle to runoff, favoring temporary local runoff accumulation and silting, thus preventing regressive erosion. In arid lands subject to wind erosion, cactus hedges are an easy, cheap and efficient way of prevention and control of top soil loss and accumulation of wind-borne deposits.

  The pricky pear fruit ranges in flavour from sour to very sweet. The fruit, known as tuna in spanish and sabra in arabic, is eaten throughout Latin America, the Mediterranean and the middle east. There is commercial tuna production in Italy, Spain, Sicily, Tunisia, Mexico and south America, especially Chile. The tender young pads (Nopalitos) are eaten as a vegetable particularly during the lent season.

With decline in demand for the tender young pads at the end of the lent, they are alternatively used as dairy cattle fodder. Local dairymen maintain that cactus pads are essential for good lactation, imparts a better flavour and quality to the milk and enhances better quality for butter. The most extensive use of cactus occurs in Brazil where O. ficus-indica has been grown as a fodder for more than 80 years.

The thorny varieties of O. ficus-indica such as forma amyclaea and forma elongata are often used as defensive hedges for the protection of gardens, orchards and olive groves through out North America and in parts of Italy

Soil improver:  Cacti help in maintaining soil fertility via their geobiogene and trace element cycling activities, enriching the top soil in organic matter and improving its structure and the stability of its aggregates, hence permeability and water uptake balance.

Other services:  The cactus hedges when established in double rows, play an important part in landscape organization, and in the local socio-economy, as evidence of land rights and land ownership in countries or regions where no land registry exists.