I was going to write about how to grow the “Spineless” Nopal Cactus, my very favorite cactus, but I don’t really “grow” this plant at all. I do give it a home, and occasional water, but it grows all of its own accord. You almost can’t kill it. Actually I haven’t found a way yet. Not that I am trying to get rid of it by any means, but it certainly gets a little out of control sometimes.
This plant exudes a life force that is undeniable and unapologetic. It expands with the least of attention and may be out of your control if you aren’t careful. It was the first plant I planted at our new home, and I think of it almost as a tree now. It has to be pruned back yearly, and we often take out huge “trunks” to try to keep it under control. I don’t mulch it, or give it much water, and it continues to shock me with its unending abundance.
To grow Nopal, gather a few pads from a friend who probably has plenty to give away. Tuck one end (Usually the side that was torn from the originating plant) into the ground. Water initially and then give it water occasionally if it is a dry season. Wait and be patient, once its root system gets established it will grow faster. Try to find a spot for it that is simply dirt and doesn’t have a lot of compost or organic matter in the soil. This can
cause the pad or the roots to get soggy and rot. A good, mineral rich native soil is best.
To harvest Nopal, wait until the young spring growth starts budding out and turning into baby pads. They will be a brighter green than the rest, with little nubs where the Glochids (spiny hairs) will eventually grow in.
Scrape the nubs off (there must be some technical term for these) and rinse to get any hairy spines off. (These are more abundant at the base of the pad, so watch out!) You may want to wear gloves if desired. The scraped pads should be used immediately (try chopping them up and sautee’ in a little butter with spices). To store pads for later, simply keep them in the fridge in a container. They usually will last a few weeks. Wait to scrape them until you are ready to use them, otherwise it will become a slimy mess.
Spiritually, this plant reminds me it is ok to take up space. In a world where women are encourage to be small, quiet, and endlessly giving of their time and energy to others, it is a comfort to know this plant. It makes no apology for its presence. It takes what it needs to survive, and reserves abundant amounts of energy for later. It is stable, but good at letting go what it no longer needs, dropping pads, and drying up sections when necessary. It knows the dropped pads are a new life force all its own, and doesn’t feel the need to cling onto all of its sections to survive. It continues to grow in such difficult places, and pays no mind to the intense heat or lack of rain. It nurtures itself. When it flowers, the soft tufts are bright and cheerful, a proud display of its often overlooked beauty, and a quiet reminder of the new life that can spring from the act of letting go.
Safety- Although Nopales is generally well tolerated, it does have a few cautions to be aware of. It can be high in Oxalates, so if you are sensitive to these you may need avoid it. Oxalates do break down a lot when cooked, so that might be a better option. Also avoid consuming excessive amounts of Nopales if you have any blood sugar issues. Excessive amounts (especially raw) can also cause diarrhea and nausea.
This is of course the same Nopales that is a most delicious food. You can buy it in groceries stores fresh or pickled, at least in my part of the southwest. It is chopped up as a vegetable, sautee’d or stewed, in all variety of traditional recipes. I love to pickle them with spices and chiles, but it can be quite time consuming, so I don’t find myself making them as often as I wish I could.
Although they say it is “spineless”, they have tiny hairs on them, called Glochids, to watch out for. When the pads are young, they haven’t developed too much of these hairs, so they are easier to clean and eat. They are great in salsas, enchiladas, tacos, smoothies, and probably many other ways I haven’t tried.
A lot of research is focused on the fruit of Nopal’s close relative, another variety of Opuntia (Opuntia ficus-indica) well known as prickly pear. Although the Nopal also grows fruit and is also technically a prickly pear, it is quite different from the brightly colored, hot pink fruits of the well-known prickly pear. The studies are quite astounding and are asserting possibilities of the fruit benefiting everything from diabetes to hangovers. It is quite the botanical gem when it comes to assisting with modern lifestyle diseases and deficiencies. 
Yet the simple pads of the Nopal have a lot of medicine to give as well. I have met several people who have been able to come off of their diabetes medication from adding the cactus pads into their diets or using Nopal supplements. (Do not try this without medical supervision!) It is an abundant source of important flavonoids, minerals, anti-oxidants, fiber and amino acids. The flowers are also a beautiful source of healing energy for the kidneys and is known for benefitting prostate issues, among other things I don’t know about, I’m sure.
It is incredible for promoting cellular renewal and its slimy texture is indicative of its high amounts of mucilage. This slime is an incredibly healing substance, similar to the slime of Aloe Vera in its soothing, protecting, and repairing qualities.
Although the mucilage is there to help the plant withstand drought , it is an important substance to have around in the dry climate of the desert. Wounds, venemous bites, sunburn, dry skin, many of the hazards of this place are healed and soothed by this plant that knows no boundaries. It can also be used to heal and soothe the lining of the digestive system, and possibly reducing inflammation throughout the body.
Now, I don’t exactly know if this particular variety of Opuntia originated in this part of the desert. I have tried to track down its exact latin name, with little success. (If anyone has the answer, please share!) Nowadays, different varieties of Prickly Pear are grown all over the world, and I have never seen the spineless Nopal anywhere in the wild. Yet, somewhere in history, if it did not originate here, someone brought this plant with them for a purpose. It has thrived and provided abundant food and medicine to so many people.
Cactus Fever can be a real thing, and it has spawned legends of crazy people living out in the Desert Mountains, their brains boiled by the sun. As far as I know, there are quite a few native cacti in the Sonoran Desert that can be eaten one way or another, but you really need to know what you are doing before you go out dining on wild cacti.
You could survive if you had to (and I do hear a lot of stories about this) by drinking water from the inside of a cactus, but you have just as much chance at killing yourself with it. Many cacti contain toxic alkaloids, or intense amounts of oxalic and malic acid.  Your body would expel these substances as soon as possible, most likely dehydrating you even more.
Even in a garden setting, these acids and natural salts in the soil accumulate and can make you sick. So if your Nopal tastes salty, think twice before eating it. This is a natural function that happens in severe drought, as the plant uses up its stored cellular water reserves. Occasional watering, especially through the dry seasons, can help avoid this issue, but the content of your soil could also be contributing factor.
Also, never take cacti from the wild without permission, respect, and observation. So many desert creatures depend on these plants for habitat and food. This goes especially for the fruit, and if you look around you can probably find a neighbor who has plenty of prickly pear fruit falling all over the ground, never to be used otherwise.
If you are in Arizona and want to start growing Nopales, I probably have some extra pads to give away. Send me an email and I will see what I can do!
1., 2. Osuna-Martínez U, Reyes-Esparza J, Rodríguez-Fragoso L (2014) Cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica): A Review on its Antioxidants Properties and Potential Pharmacological Use in Chronic Diseases. Nat Prod Chem Res 2:153. doi: 10.4172/2329-6836.1000153 https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/cactus-opuntia-ficusindica-a-review-on-its-antioxidants-properties-2329-6836.1000153.php?aid=33317
3.Jonathan DuHamel “Cactus Water Will Make You Sick” Arizona Daily Independent, June 5, 2013, https://arizonadailyindependent.com/2013/06/05/cactus-water-will-make-you-sick/