A prickly pear is a characteristically large spiny cactus that produces sweet and juicy fruits. The desert plant has long, thick and sharp spiny leaves where fruit grows at the end of the margin. The evergreen plant has no real branches, but succulent stem segments known as nopales or pads.
The prickly pear fruit, known as tuna, is edible, while the pads are cooked and used as vegetables. The fruit has hard shells with sharp spines that are removed before eating. Nevertheless, there are some species with no spines on the fruit.
Prickly pear is used in juices, sweets, herbal teas, jellies and alcoholic drinks. The flowers and fruits have various deep colors, such as red, purple, yellow, green or orange, and are used as natural food coloring agents. The flowers are also used to make essential oils used in perfumes.
In medicine, flowers, leaves and fruits have medicinal components that treat different ailments. The prickly pear has been used by Mexicans for years as a traditional medicine to treat wounds and inflammation of urinary tracts. It has also been used to treat digestive system maladies, such as gastric acidity and ulcers. The fruit has been used in Korea to treat asthma, diarrhea and diabetes.