Relish history

Rich in its mythological antecedents, the prickly pear has many medicinal merits

By Chaitanya Chandan
Published: Friday 15 April 2016

The fruit induces
hypoglycemia by
reducing the intestinal
absorption of glucose (Photo: Rajit Sengupta)

On a recent trip to Rishikesh I chanced upon a strange fruit being sold by a roadside vendor. Known as ramphal, the fruit was reddish-purple and pear-shaped. The fruit had a shallow depression at the top and several tufts of small barbed bristles. The vendor served the fruit after cutting it in two portions and sprinkling some powdered sugar over it.

I later found out that the fruit is called prickly pear (Opuntia dilleni), a cactus from southeastern USA. But there are references of this fruit even in India mythology. It is said that when Lord Ram killed Ravan, the demon king of Lanka, he rushed to Rishikesh for penance for killing a Brahmin. At that time he ate this fruit, and so the fruit began to be called ramphal.

The prickly pear has relevance in other countries too. The Mexican government uses the symbol in official documents. It depicts a Mexican golden eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus devouring a snake. To the people of Tenochtitlan, this fruit has strong religious connotations. The Euro-peans interpret this fruit as a triumph of good over evil. The fruit was also the second-most valuable export from Mexico to Spain in the 1600s. It grows at the very edge of the spiny leaves of these imposing cacti, which are some of the hardiest lowland cacti in the world.

Considering the hardiness of the plant, it is not surprising that it is found in abundance in various parts of the world. It can grow in semi-arid, sub-tropical, tropical as well as in warmer temperate regions—from the US and Mexico to India and Africa. It may inhabit open woodlands, rangelands, grasslands, pastures, coastal environs, gardens and even, wastelands. And it can be eaten and prepared in a number of ways (see recipe ‘Prickly pear jam’).

In central Africa, the juice from the pads—leaves of the cacti—has long been used as an effective mosquito repellent. It also attracts an insect called cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), from which the natural carmine dye is derived. Women during the Inca and Mayan period used to paint their hands and breasts with this dye.

The insect produces carminic acid, which is used as a colourant in the food and lip-stick industries.

Medicinal value

In the traditional form of medicine, all of its parts are used, though its stem, flower and roots are of special importance. Research reveals the prickly pear reduces inflammation; it is an antioxidant; it has anti-depressant properties; it reduces blood pressure; it is used to treat acute liver injury; it is effective against TB; and, it is also an antimicrobial. The fruit protects nerve cells and is used for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, Park-inson’s disease and heart ailments.

Studies published in Diabetes Care and Archives of Investigative Medicine also indicate that consuming 100 g to 500 g of cooked pads helps in treating diabetic patients. Results showed a drop of between eight and 31 per cent of blood glucose readings.

Another study found that the fruit induces hypoglycemia by reducing the intestinal absorption of glucose, but other mechanisms of action cannot be excluded, say, for example, the presence of an orally active insulin-like compound. The study was published in the International Journal of Phar-macognosy in 1996.

Studies also reveal that the fruit contains high amino acids and the prickly pear cactus is said to be high in fibre, magnesium and iron. It is also believed that the prickly pear can be consumed as a hangover cure.

But physicians recommend precautions: it is not suitable for pregnant women, and diabetics can consume the extract only after consulting a physician. Importantly, before eating a prickly pear, it is essential to remove the skin and peel so that all the spines are removed, or the glochids—hair-like spines or short prickles of the cacti—can stick on your lips, gums, and throat, which can be very painful.

Its medicinal value can be ascertained from the fact that European travelers often carried the fruit during their long voyages in the 18th century to prevent scurvy, a disease caused by Vitamin C deficiency, which affected poorly nourished sailors.

In many ways, the prickly pear has come a long way.

Thinkstock Photos
Prickly pear jam
  • About 10 prickly pears
  • 2 1/2 cups of granulated sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • Juice of 1 lemon


Peel the prickly pears. Cut them into small pieces and put them in a pot along with a cup of water. Place the pot on the stove on medium low heat. Allow it to simmer/low boil, and cook until the fruit becomes soft. Remove the fruits from the stove and pass them through a food mill to break down the fruit and remove the seeds.

Once again place the fruits on the stove on low heat to bring the fruit pulp mixture to a gentle boil. Add sugar and keep stirring. Add the lemon juice and allow the mixture to simmer until the sugar is dissolved. Let the mixture thicken considerably. It should take approximately 40 minutes to achieve fine consistency. Store in sterile jelly jars, and if canned properly, your prickly pear jam should last for at least six months.

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