Is the spineless variety of the prickly pear cactus really edible ? (Willem Van Cotthem)

Today, I received an interesting comment on my video :

Spineless Opuntia to Combat Desertification

“This spineless, edible cactus is a very interesting plant for smallholder farmers in the drylands.  Easy to grow from vegetative paddles, growing with a minimum of water in dry areas.  Can be used to combat desertification, to limit erosion.  A nice food crop (paddles, fruits) and fodder plant for livestock.”

Here jonipinkney‘s comment :

Here in Arizona the spineless as well as the spined varieties grow all over. However, even the spineless ones have tiny hairlike needles called glochids. Do you know of any varieties that lack glochids as well as the larger spines? If so, where would one get them?

My reply was :

Yes, even the spineless variety has glochids. These are eliminated by brushing the pads with a small brush under running tap water (I saw this in a YOU TUBE video about “nopales”). As Brazilians and Mexicans (maybe other Central and South American people too) are eating tons of nopales, I can’t imagine that it is such a difficult action to prepare nopales for consumption. Anyway, as a botanist, I will continue to look for spineless Opuntia without glochids. That would make this wonderful plant even more precious.


2006-12-OPUNTIA-01The massive stands of the spineless variety of Opuntia ficus-indica that I discovered quite easily in the vicinity of Algeria’s capital Algiers and a number of other localities in that N. African country (Photo WVC)

Opuntia for food and fodder

The fact that a large number of people in Central and South America are eating regularly pads and fruits of the Opuntia ficus-indica var. inermis or use it as fodder for their animals, made me looking for the spineless variety of this widely distributed cactus all over the world.  My search was really successful.  I discovered it in almost every country where the prickly pear cactus was growing : in Pakistan, India, Lebanon, Algeria and Arizona. In most cases, the local people did never pay special attention to the presence of this remarkable natural variety. They simply didn’t realize it is so valuable.

This makes me formulating the hypothesis that, wherever the prickly pear cactus grows, one can also find the spineless variety amidst the thickets of the cactus.

As this is only a hypothesis, it would be nice if local people, both scientists and laymen, could look for the presence of the edible spineless variety in their local (national) flora.  It goes without saying that the “discovery” of “a new edible wild plant” would be very interesting for any country wanting to help poor and hungry people to some affordable fresh food, full of vitamins and other valuable mineral and organic components (see Google).  And even if the local people would not want to eat it, their livestock would certainly like it.

We are looking for the day that the spineless variety of the prickly pear cactus will be internationally recognized as a valuable edible plant.  Undoubtedly, it can play an extremely important role in the combat of hunger, child malnutrition and poverty, particularly in the drought-affected regions.


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.