Opuntia ficus-indica is a domesticated cactus that has been used for food for at least 9000 years. Some of the common English names for the plant and its fruit are Indian fig opuntia, barbary fig, and prickly pear, although this last name has also been applied to other less common Opuntia species. Fig opuntia is grown primarily as a fruit crop, but also for the vegetable nopales and other uses. The name "tuna" is also used for the fruit of this cactus. The plant spread to many parts of the Americas in pre-Columbian times, and since Columbus, have spread to many parts of the world, especially the Mediterranean, where they have become naturalized.
The plant’s edible uses have been tied to the Christopher Columbus and the Mayan Indians. The fruits have a sweet taste somewhat resembling watermelon. Jams and jellies are produced from the fruit, which resemble strawberries and figs in color and flavor.
The name ficus, which means fig, also has to do with the plant’s fruit. The pads are also eaten as a vegetable that can be made into cactus salad, added to omelets and more. While the pads of various opuntia species are used for this purpose, ficus-indica is the most popular. These edible uses make opuntia somewhat of a saving grace for arid areas because it allows crop production in an environment that would otherwise be unsuitable. Cacti are good crops for dry areas because they efficiently convert water into biomass.
Mexicans have used Opuntia for thousands of years to make an alcoholic drink called colonche. Accordingly, ficus-indica is one of Mexico's most important exports, ranking among tequila and corn. In Malta, a liqueur called Bajtra (the Maltese name for prickly pear) is made from this fruit, which can be found growing wild in most every field. On the island of Saint Helena, the prickly pear also gives its name to locally distilled liqueur, Tungi Spirit.
Along with being a food source, this species has a number of medicinal uses including everything from treatment of enlarged prostate to treatment of colitis and irritable bowel syndrome to being a hangover cure. The cactus does have one drawback. Its spines take the form of fine hairs, which can seem harmless, but they act much like hairy splinters in the skin that will work themselves in deeply if allowed to.
The plants flower in three distinct colors: white, yellow and red. The flowers first appear in early may through the early summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and the fruit ripen from august through october. The fruit are typically eaten, minus the thick outer skin, after chilling in a refrigerator for a few hours. The bright red/purple or white/yellowish flesh contains many tiny hard seeds that are usually swallowed, but should be avoided by those who have problems digesting seeds.