The most commercially valuable use for Opuntia ficus-indica today is for the large, sweet fruits, called tunas. Areas with significant tuna-growing cultivation include Mexico, Malta, Spain, Sicily and the coasts of Southern Italy, Greece, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel, Chile, Brazil, Turkey, as well as in Eritrea and Ethiopia where the fruit is called beles (Ge’ez: በለስ). In Sicily, where the prickly pear fruit is known as ficudinnia (the Italian name being fico d’India, meaning “Indian fig”), the cactus grows wild and cultivated to heights of 12–16 ft (4–5 m). In Namibia, O. ficus-indica is a common drought-resistant fodder plant.
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. They have a taste similar to a juicy, extra sweet watermelon. 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.
Jams and jellies are produced from the fruit, which resemble strawberries and figs in color and flavor.
Mexicans have used Opuntia for thousands of years to make an alcoholic drink called colonche.
The fruit contains vitamin C and was one of the early cures for scurvy.
In the center of Sicily, in the Province of Enna, in a small village named Gagliano Castelferrato, a prickly pear-flavored liqueur is produced called “Ficodi”, flavored somewhat like a medicinal/aperitif.
In the early 1900s in the United States, the prickly pear fruit was imported from Mexico and Mediterranean countries to satisfy the growing population of immigrants arriving from Italy and Greece. The fruit lost its popularity during the mid-1950s, but has increased in popularity since the late 1990s, due to the influx of Mexican immigrants.
Recently, the cattle industry of the Southwest United States has begun to cultivate O. ficus-indica as a fresh source of feed for cattle. The cactus is grown both as a feed source and a boundary fence. Cattle avoid the sharp spines of the cactus and do not stray from an area enclosed by it. Native prickly pear growth has been used for over a century to feed them; the spines can be burned off to reduce mouth injury. The cactus pads, on which the cattle feed, are low in dry matter and crude protein, but are useful as a supplement in drought conditions. In addition to the food value, the moisture content virtually eliminates watering the cattle and the human effort in achieving that chore.
Mexican and other southwestern residents eat the young cactus pads (nopales, plural, nopal, singular), usually picked before the spines harden. They are sliced into strips, skinned or unskinned, and fried with eggs and jalapeños, served as a breakfast treat. They have a texture and flavor like string beans.
Opuntia ficus-indica (Indian fig) flowering in Secunderabad
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.
Other uses include as an ingredient in adobe (to bind and waterproof).
O. ficus-indica (as well as other species in Opuntia and Nopalea) is cultivated in nopalries to serve as a host plant for cochineal insects, which produce desirable red and purple dyes. This practice dates from pre-Columbian times.
The plant is considered a pest species in parts of the Mediterranean Basin due to its ability to spread rapidly beyond the zones where it was originally cultivated. In Hebrew, the plant is referred to as sabres. Kishkashta, a main character on a 1970-80s Israeli children’s show, Ma Pit’om, was a large, talking felt puppet of the Opuntia cactus.
The high levels of selenium in Opuntia are comparable to those found in the Brassicaceae
The fruit of O. ficus-indica can cause constipation if consumed with the seeds, without the seeds it is laxative.
Cart track in Atsbi Wenberta, Ethiopia bordered with hedges consisting of Beles (Tigrinya), Cactus Pear (English) or Opuntia ficus-indica (Scientific name)
A University of South Florida engineering professor and a team of researchers have found that mucilage from the prickly pear cactus works as a natural, nontoxic dispersant for oil spills.