August 5, 2021 by D.Fathia
Updated August 5, 2021

Fig opuntia: a treasure covered with thorns

Fig opuntia: a treasure covered with thorns

Growing up in a rural area offered me the chance to discover different plants and fall in love with them. The diversity of colors, scents, and shapes create a sublime mosaic that lures the senses.

I fell in love with a plethora of genres of plants, be it fruit-bearing or garden species. However, there was a life-changing moment when I found out that the word cactus does not only refer to one single type of plant but it actually encompasses several ones. And that was the moment I fell for the cactus!

Cactus is a big family of garden plants but it also includes fruit-bearing varieties. My favorite is Opuntia ficus-indica, the Indian fig opuntia or otherwise labeled fig opuntia. Don’t let the word fig misguide you; this is a totally different kind of fig. in Arabic, the difference is made by adding the description to this cactus; they have thorns.

This blog post dives deep into the world of this cactus genus and brings to light the pleasure and usefulness hidden beneath the stinging thorns.

A detailed description of the fig opuntia:

The origins of this plant are thought to be in southern and central Mexico as other genetic relatives have been found in these areas. Otherwise, it is widely domesticated around the world, especially in arid and semiarid places.

Being familiar with the southern regions of Tunisia, I can confidently say that this plant is found virtually everywhere. Most people fear the thorns, especially that they tend to be thrown by wind and might sometimes affect passersby. However, many would cultivate it in orchards relatively far from houses and usually trodden roads.

This species is one of the succulent plants, which means that it has fleshy, thickened parts that retain water, and hence the plant can fight dry conditions. They are also autogamous, meaning that they are self-pollinating.

The plant grows up to five meters in height and usually flowers as soon as it reaches two years of age. Flowers appear around May, but the fruits ripen starting from August. The fruits’ thick outer cover ranges from pale green to red when they ripe. The inner edible part can also be red, white, red, yellow, or pale green.

The fruit has hard seeds that are usually swollen, but people with issues digesting seeds should avoid them. The taste is sweet and kind of similar to watermelons’.

Harvesting these fruits should be done by professionals because the thorns can be really dangerous. The traditional way of harvesting makes use of long sticks with crafted three speared heads to remove the fruit.

Consumption and nutritional value:

I belong to the part of the world where only the fruit of the fig opuntia is consumed by humans; however, people in other regions do consume other parts of the plant. In my home, like in other houses around here, we only eat this kind of cactus raw.

In other places, the leaves, or the stems, are eaten as well. They can be sliced and fried with eggs and served as a morning meal. They can be also cooked or boiled and served with chicken or tacos…etc. the fruit can be turned into jam or jelly.

What’s more surprising, for me at least, is that some regions such as Sicily, Malta, and Mexico make alcoholic drinks out of this plant.

Fig opuntia is also cultivated for animal food in America. In other places, such as Tunisia, they are widely planted to form boundary fences and to slow and direct sand movement. In Mexico, there is a plant producing biofuel from the biomass of fig opuntia.

The bottom line, this plant is an important part of the ecological system, in the food industry, and has the potential to conquer other domains such as energy.

Nutritional profile:

A cup of about 150 grams of fig opuntia, otherwise called Barbary fig, contains the following nutrients:

  • Calories: 61
  • Carbohydrates: 14.3 grams
  • Fiber: 5.4 grams
  • Protein: 1.1 gram
  • Fat: less than 1 gram
  • Vitamin C: 23% of the Daily Value
  • Calcium: 6% of the DV
  • Magnesium: 30% of the DV
  • Potassium: 7% of the DV

These data show that Barbary fig contains important amounts of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It is one of the few fruits that contain great amounts of vitamin C, which is necessary for the immune system. Calcium is vital for the bones' health, while magnesium is essential for muscle contraction and energy metabolism. Potassium plays an important role in regulating blood pressure.

Barbary fig oil:

Fig opuntia is used for more diverse purposes than we thought. The hard seeds inside the fruit carry a type of oil that is now extracted and used in the cosmetics and beauty care industry. These seeds contain phenols, phytosterols, vitamin E, and other antioxidants and fatty acids.

There is no extensive research on this item, yet. However, pioneering studies suggest that this oil has significant potential, especially that it can be applied to all different skin types.

Research shows that the great antioxidant and antibacterial properties of this oil make it an excellent product to use to prevent skin damage. It also keeps the skin hydrated thanks to its linoleic acid content. Besides, the fat content makes this item excellent carrier oil.

Generally, it is safe to use fig opuntia oil, but if you have any seeds allergy you should probably check with your doctor first. If you have sensitive skin you can perform a patch test first to see if you have any reaction to this oil.


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