Opuntia, the Miracle Plant

Wild Greek Opuntia Cactus. Photo by Gina Varela

Like an ideal individual of our day and age, the Opuntia prickly pear cactus is resilient, strong and seemingly impenetrable on the outside, yet succulently soft and rich with admirable qualities on the inside. Indeed, even on a spiritual level it is said to symbolise adaptability and physical power combined with inner wealth. The plant grows in warm, dry places such as Mexico, east Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean and derives its name from the classical-era Greek city of Opus; indeed, its ability to be easily planted by simply placing the leaves on the earth was even written about by the ancient Greek writer Theophrastus.

Age-old wisdom

Opuntia ficus indica, as is its full Latin name, has been used in a number of resourceful and fascinating ways since antiquity, with both its leaves and the vitamin C-rich prickly pear fruit and its seeds being found to provide unique flavour and health advantages.

Then I saw her face - now I’m a believer!

Throughout the ages and around the planet, this particular species of cactus plant may have chiefly been recognised for its sophisticated nutritive value and even used as a dye, but with the help of technology in more recent years and with extensive scientific testing, Opuntia’s oil has been proven to offer exceptional, multifaceted and luxuriant benefits in skin-care too.

Through a cold-press process, its precious oil is extracted from the seeds to produce a product extremely high in antioxidants, essential fatty acids, linoleic acid (60% concentration) vitamins (especially E and K), Omega 6 fatty acids and numerous minerals.

Daily use of the fast-absorbing oil by both women and men results in a smoother, brighter skin, as Opuntia has potent anti-ageing qualities, deep, long-lasting moisturising properties and protects the skin from free radicals such as air pollution and UV radiation. Opuntia oil has earned a loyal, in-the-know fan base that includes an increasing number of celebrities. ‘Domestic goddess’ Nigella Lawson described the merits of the oil in a column published in the London Times saying “Put it on at night and you’ll wake up looking as if you’ve been to a spa by the sea, slept for 10 hours and been off Twitter for a month.”

Regular users will vouch that its laudable effects are guaranteed as it noticeably illuminates the skin from the inside out, tightens the pores, reduces dark circles, smooths fine lines and being an anti-inflammatory agent, also counters redness such as rosacea. Let's not forget it's texture and what it does for the texture of your skin....

The many uses for this ‘miracle’ plant

Described as a ‘miracle crop’ both in ancient and modern times because of its incredibly easy ability to grow abundantly in warm climates without any irrigation, the plant has historically been used in many interesting ways:

Opuntia for the morning after! Apparently studies have revealed that as prickly pear works by inhibiting inflammation in the body and its organs, it can reduce hangover symptoms (headache, dehydration, nausea) by half.

Opuntia as a substitue for plastic! The juice from the Opuntia paddles has been used in a lab in Mexico to serve as a substitute for plastic, yet totally biodegradable and non-toxic! The cactus juice mixed with a natural formula and then laminated has made this amazing new product which mammals and humans alike can even eat once finished with it, allowing for total efficiency and reduction of ocean pollution.

Opuntia as yummy and healthy food

The fruit is described as a mixture between strawberries and figs, while some have gone as far as saying it’s reminiscent of bubblegum! Either way, the prickly pear can be use to make jams, an alcoholic drink called Colonche in Mexico, a liqueur called Ficodi in Sicily and other concoctions like chutneys and sauces. In Greece, the fruit's juice is enjoyed by the rare Opuntia farms tending to its organic cultivation. The leaves are also used in a variety of ways - grilled, pickled and marinated - in Mexican cuisine.

Opuntia as medicine and preventative

The nutrient-rich cactus that’s 80% water was found since hundreds of years ago by Native Americans to have sophisticated medicinal qualities too. It has been used as a treatment for cuts, bruises, sunburn for external injuries and for treating colds, congestion, stomach upset, a weak immune system, high blood pressure and ulcers. It is also considered to lower cholesterol and prevent cancer and heart disease.

Surviving for you

A warrior botanical everyone wants on their side... If you were on a deserted island, and could pick only a couple of plants to have growing there, I'm certain you would now choose the Opuntia plant. Live long, live well and in health & beauty!

 By Alexia Amvrazi

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