Prickly pear cactus (botanical name, Opuntia ficus-indica) is a cacti plant that has the characteristic of being a fruit and flower compact and has been used by the native Mexican tribes for treating a range of ailments and health conditions for several centuries now. While growing naturally, it is found in places having desert-like conditions. However, currently people in several European countries cultivate cacti plant commercially for a number of purposes. In fact, this plant has been domesticated long ago and is an important crop in agricultural economies in the parched and semi-parched regions across the globe.
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The prickly pear cactus is a perennial cacti plant that usually grows up to 5 meters or 16 feet in height. This plant bears copious minuscule thorny glochids (hairs/ bristles), which are removed easily when one touches the plant. Subsequently, these glochids get stuck to the skin and they become difficult to see and hard to remove from the body. In fact, these thorny hairs have the potential to set off great uneasiness.
The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) possesses a variety of nourishing chemical elements that have incredible remedial as well as preventive attributes. The plant itself is extremely healthful and encloses an exceptional vitamin and mineral profile, which contributes to the several helpful effects of prickly pear cactus. This cacti plant offers numerous nutrients essential for our body. It has exceptionally rich fiber content and is also a natural resource for vitamin C (ascorbic acid), flavonoids and as many as 17 amino acids. Precisely speaking the prickly pear cactus is loaded with nutrients that are known to aid the liver, pancreas and prostate. This plant is especially beneficial for people suffering from diabetes, since the health of the liver and pancreas is very important to maintain the balance of blood sugar.
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The prickly pear cactus possesses anti-inflammatory properties that are very familiar to most. The plant was used by the ancient tribes in Mexico to alleviate inflamed insect bites. Meanwhile, scientists in the West have found that prickly pear cactus is helpful in treating arthritis as well as inflammation of the joints, muscles and even the eyes.
It is very natural that athletes have fallen back on prickly pear cactus to obtain additional energy in the gym, to lower muscle soreness following exercises, to lessen the modifications of developing DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and to facilitate and accelerate recuperation. An extract from the prickly pear cactus has proved to be amazingly beneficial in the form of an ergogenic (mounting ability of physical and mental labor by doing away with exhaustion) recovery aide.
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It has been found that the influence of prickly pear cactus on consumption of alcoholic beverages is also very impressive. Several studies have found that this plant is able to aid in lowering the consequences of too much alcohol consumption, provided it is used before drinking.
Prickly pear cactus is effective in lowering blood cholesterol levels and, at the same time, it facilitates digestion of nutrients, thereby aiding in controlling the glucose levels in the bloodstream. This plant also assists in lessening the development of plaques in the arteries and veins, thereby enhancing blood circulation. Prickly pear cactus encloses calcium which facilitates in avoiding osteoporosis, while the rich fiber content of the plant enhances the digestive system. All these actions together help to make the blood purer and better, thereby aiding diuresis (increased urine discharge), which helps to cleanse the kidneys. Any individual having too much glucose in his/ her blood would observe that when they consume the potent juice of the prickly pear cactus plant, the glucose level lowers considerably within just an hour of ingesting it.
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Prickly pear cactus possesses rich fiber content and this functions as an appetite suppressant - in other words, it does not allow one to eat excessively and become obese. In addition, the fiber also helps to reduce accumulation of fat and makes excretions more frequent and regular. Latest researches have revealed that ingestion of foods that have high fiber content facilitates in protecting against a variety of ailments, for instance, heart disease, diabetes and colon disorders. Prickly pear cactus is really a wonderful plant that encloses a vegetable protein that aids in decreasing cellulite (lumps of fat deposits in the thighs and buttock) as well as diminishes excessive fluid retention by the body. Amino acids enclosed by this plant are useful in providing the body with energy as well as lessening fatigue. At the same time, they also help to diminish the sugar levels in the bloodstream and lower appetite.
The prickly pear cactus is an amazing plant that offers numerous health as well as nutritional gains. This plant has proved to be a wonderful supplement that can be added to any type of diet, particularly those taken by the diabetic patients. Prickly pear cactus encloses a number of natural vitamins and essential minerals which offer health benefits that are important for our health and well-being in general.
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Even the flowers and stems of the prickly pear cactus possess therapeutic properties, such as diuretic, antispasmodic and emollient. Often the split stems are used as a first aid treatment and bound around the wounded limbs. The flowers of this plant possess astringent properties and are frequently employed to lessen bleeding as well as for treating problems related to the gastro-intestinal tract, for instance colitis, diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In addition, prickly pear cactus flowers are made use of in treating a distended prostate gland.
As an herbal medication, prickly pear cactus has long been used to cure superficial wounds (shallow, surface injuries), such as scrapes and cuts. Similar to the aloe vera, this plant is also applied externally on the affected areas.
As discussed earlier, prickly pear cactus is effective in suppressing appetite and, thereby, very useful in weight loss. Initially, the fibers enclosed by the plant attach themselves to the fat suspended (free fat) in the stomach and make that fat unsuitable for digestion. Apart from this, the fibers enclosed by prickly pear cactus are in a state that is somewhere between a solid and liquid and this makes them sticky. Thus, they are able to remain in the stomach for a longer period compared to any other common food.
This is the primary reason why people who consume prickly pear cactus do not feel hungry for a prolonged period and consequently, eat less food, taking in fewer calories. In fact, their craving for food vanishes and this, in turn, helps them to lose weight.
Since the early days, the prickly pear cactus was conventionally used by the Mexican Indian tribes as a foodstuff as well as a therapeutic herb. It may be noted that the climatic conditions in Mexico are scorching, parched, and desert-like, which makes it difficult to undertake agriculture as there is a dearth of irrigation technologies. As a result, only a few species are able to thrive under such harsh conditions. The Mexican Indian tribes have, therefore, used the prickly pear cactus as a food out of compulsion and also owing to the absence of other types of plants in the region. They have also used prickly pear cactus to prepare flavored food items, such as soups, jellies, pickles and also cheese products!
Alternatively, this plant is also blended with oil to manufacture candles. The gum exuded by prickly pear cactus also has industrial use, as it is added to plaster, whitewash and such things to make them stick to the walls better.
Prickly pear cactus is indigenous to Mexico, the United States and South Africa, but over the years it has been naturalized in the Mediterranean region where this plant is found growing naturally in dry, arid and rock-strewn locales. In addition, this plant presently also grows in Africa and Australia, where it has turned into an infamous weed.
Prickly pear cactus requires an extremely well-drained or sandy soil and has a preference for a pH ranging between 6 and 7.5. It is essential to maintain the plants somewhat waterless during the winter months. Nevertheless, this plant also has a preference for rational watering during its growing period. It is ideal for the prickly pear cactus, if the plant is grown in a place at the base of a wall facing south or any place where it is possible to protect the plant from the rains during winter. In order to flourish well, prickly pear cactus needs enough of sunlight and warmth. Prickly pear cactus has the aptitude to endure a lot of neglect. This plant is cultivated in several sub-tropical areas as well as warm temperate climatic regions for its flowers, which are edible, and also as a fence that helps to prevent animals from entering an area. Prickly pear cactus is found in a number of named varieties and one among them does not possess the characteristic spines and annoying bristles.
The prickly pear cactus is propagated by its seeds, which should ideally be sown in early spring. The seeds need to be sown in manure having an excellent drainage system inside a greenhouse. When the seedlings have grown sufficiently tall to be handled, pick them out individually and plant them in separate containers. The young plants should be essentially grown in the greenhouse at least for the first two winters. The plants may be put in their permanent positions outdoors during the latter part of spring or early summer when the last expected frost has passed. It is also important to provide the plants with some kind of protection from the winter dampness. While cultivating prickly pear cactus, it is important to ensure that you have some young plants in reserve in the greenhouse because it is likely that some of the plants planted outdoors may not survive the onslaughts of their first winter.
Alternately, the plant can also be propagated with its leaf pads. The leaf pads of the prickly pear cactus may be cut any time during the growing period of the plant. After having cut the leaf pad, you should leave it in an arid, sunlit place for a few days to make sure that its base is somewhat dehydrated and has started to become hard-skinned (callous). Plant these semi-arid leaf pads into containers containing sandy compost. Propagating the plant through this procedure is extremely simple and the leaf pads start to give out roots soon.
Contemporary science has found out that the prickly pear cactus encloses several health benefits. Findings of different researches indicate that apart from facilitating the healing of minor wounds and cuts, this plant also acts as a scavenger of the harmful free radicals produced by the body, thereby helping to protect the immune system as well as avert oxidative strain. Prickly pear cactus also possesses antioxidant activities and this helps in protecting the cells and organs. In addition, the antioxidant attributes of the plant also supposedly inhibit the aging process as well as prevent diseases and even injuries.
Besides the above mentioned health benefits of prickly pear cactus, this plant also has the aptitude to decrease the LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol, also called the 'bad' cholesterol, levels, thereby bringing down the blood pressure as well as the workload of the heart.
Chemical analysis of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) shows that it is loaded with natural flavonoids, such as kaempferol 3-methyl ether, kaempferol, quercetin 3-methyl ether, quercetin, dihydroquercetin, dihydrokaempferol (aromadendrin6), narcissin and eriodictyol. In fact, the health promoting benefits of prickly pear cactus are attributed to these flavonoids.
In addition to the above-mentioned flavonoids, the prickly pear cactus plant also encloses a number of minerals, such as iron, potassium and calcium, as well as a variety of vitamins, counting vitamins B1, B2 and C.