The prickly pear cactus is the official state plant of Texas. Its large flat pads actually function as stems. Some varieties of prickly pear cactus can grow to be up to 20 feet tall and live for several decades.
The fruits and pads of the prickly pear cactus are edible. These parts of the prickly pear can be eaten raw as long as the skin and spikes are peeled off. The fruit, known as "tuna" is Spanish, can also be made into jelly, juice, candy and wine. The pads, called "nopales," are widely consumed as a vegetable. The prickly pear has been used for both culinary and medicinal purposes for centuries. It is still commonly used as a natural remedy to treat skin irritations, cuts and sunburn. Some evidence suggests that ingesting prickly pear may help to regulate blood sugar. It is also used to make paint and to mark property lines.
There are several different varieties of prickly pear cactus, all of which belong to the genus Opuntia. They thrive in hot, dry conditions where there is good soil drainage. Prickly pear species can be found in deserts, grasslands and coastal areas. Prickly pears that are planted in areas with too much moisture are prone to root rot.