In Mexico, a multicultural nation, the use of the cactus called nopal is so extensive in food, livestock, art, construction, science, aesthetics, and much more, that the spiny racquet-shaped plant has a cross-cutting impact on all Mexicans. The nopal cactus appears in the center of the national coat of arms along with the golden eagle, the rattlesnake, and the snails adorned with a branch of oak and an olive tree. And this ensemble at the center of the national flag of green, white and red colors, has earned it to be recognized as the most beautiful flag in the world.

Nopal is an indispensable food in Mexico for more than 10 thousand years. Its cultivation goes back to the ancient Mesoamerican cultures where they were prepared by toasting on a comal and stewing with zucchini or combined with meat from wild animals, such as deer, armadillos, and rabbits. Currently, its cultivation is practiced in almost all the national territory and the annual per capita consumption is 6.4 kilograms. Its demand is homogeneous throughout most of the year, but it increases at Christmas and during Lent.

Mexico has the greatest diversity of wild and cultivated nopal cactus in the world since it has more than 100 species and many of them are suitable for consumption as fresh vegetables. Its nutritious qualities make it a healthy and versatile ingredient for numerous dishes, making it an excellent option for this Lenten season in Mexico.

The nopal and the Mexican coat of arms

The graphic composition offered by the Mexican coat of arms provides natural elements that allude to the biological diversity of Mexico like no other emblem: the nopal, the eagle, the snake, snails, and branches of oak and laurel while representing the great cultural and epic values embodied in a bird called "supreme eagle" by the ancient Mexicans.

The first four elements belong to the pre-Hispanic culture; the garland of oak and laurel, to the Spanish culture of the 18th century, which in turn absorbed them from the millenary civilizations of Greece and Rome. The nopal cactus, the perch on which, according to the founding myth of Mexico, an eagle appeared devouring a serpent, is, together with the bird, the permanent element in the successive versions of the national coat of arms throughout history.

The nopal cactus and prickly pear cactus.
The nopal cactus and prickly pear cactus are some of the most significant symbols of Mexican identity. Image: Agrifood and Fisheries Information Service

Nopal is an indispensable food in Mexico for more than 10 thousand years. Its cultivation goes back to the ancient Mesoamerican cultures where they were prepared by toasting on a comal and stewing with zucchini or combined with meat from wild animals, such as deer, armadillos, and rabbits. Currently, its cultivation is practiced in almost all the national territory and the annual per capita consumption is 6.4 kilograms. Its demand is homogeneous throughout most of the year, but it increases at Christmas and during Lent.

Mexico has the greatest diversity of wild and cultivated nopal cactus in the world since it has more than 100 species and many of them are suitable for consumption as fresh vegetables. Its nutritious qualities make it a healthy and versatile ingredient for numerous dishes, making it an excellent option for this Lenten season in Mexico.

The nopal and the Mexican coat of arms

One of the earliest representations of the founding of Tenochtitlan is the Teocalli of the Sacred War, a monolith found in the vicinity of what is now the National Palace, dating from the time of Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (1502-1520). It is a bas-relief showing a golden eagle devouring a rattlesnake standing on a nopal cactus that emerges from the body of a deity and, like tunas, holds hearts.

Several novo-Hispanic codices include diverse elements of the foundation; some of them are perpetuated in the national emblem while others disappear. The nopal remains. Approximately 20 thousand years ago, when the first settlers arrived in the Basin of Mexico and lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers, they found several genera of cactus on which they fed. Of the nopal cactus are the largest and oldest records that we have.

This vegetable would have been domesticated 9 thousand years ago and, along with maguey, corn, and beans, was the main food of the Chichimec groups. They called it nohpalli, a Nahuatl word that became nopal upon the arrival of the Spaniards.

The basin of Mexico, where the Great Tenochtitlan was founded, is currently the habitat of more than a dozen species of nopal. One of them, Opuntia Streptacantha or Cardon cactus, is identified by some historians as the one that appears in the first representations of the shield, for its red prickly pear cactus and for being endemic to central and northern Mexico. Others believe that it belongs to the Opuntia-ficus-indica genus, with green prickly pears and wide distribution, but also mention the chamacuelo cactus (Opuntia tomentosa) and the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia lasciacantha), with orange flowers and red prickly pears, while others maintain that it was the prickly pear cactus, Opuntia dejecta, of more tropical distribution, for its long flowers and protruding stamens and pistils.

When the Spaniards colonized these lands, they were surprised to find the nopalli, which in Nahuatl means a tree that bears prickly pears. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún described it as "monstrous" the vegetable whose trunk is composed of leaves and branches are made of the same leaves that are wide, thick, and edible.

The nopal and the eagle also represent the two main sources of the Mexica economy. On the one hand, agriculture, symbolized by the nopal, is the oldest and most constant species used as food by the Chichimec peoples. On the other hand, the sacred war, represented by the eagle, with which the empire expanded and obtained a great amount of tribute.

Prickly pear cactus (Nopal forrajero in Spanish)

Scientific name Opuntia spp.

Prickly pear cactus is a perennial, succulent, shrubby, or creeping plant, formed by green stalks where photosynthesis takes place. In them, circular spots called areolas are observed, on which the leaves transformed into thorns are implanted, and the ores, which give origin to fruits known as prickly pears. In their tissues, they can store water, which allows them to resist drought and marked variations of temperature.

Product

Green, fleshy stalks, formed by a series of oval, bristly pallets of thorns representing the leaves. Flowers on the edge of the stems, with many ingrown petals. Its nutrient content depends on the variety and the handling given to the plant in cultivated or post-harvest conditions. It has been found that the one-month-old stalk is richer in vitamin C, carbohydrates, and proteins, while the one-year-old stalk has higher contents of calcium, sodium, potassium, and iron, as well as the bra. Its structure can contain from 70 to 93% water.

Crop development

To reproduce it, stalks from robust and healthy plants are used, which are buried up to half or two-thirds in the loose soil. The recommended planting density varies from 2,500 to 45,000 plants per ha, depending on soil conditions and available moisture. Two planting methods are recommended; 100 x 25 cm (40,000 plants/ha), which is more intensive than the traditional planting method, using rows at 2 m and 1 m between plants.

Planting conditions and climate

It thrives best in deep calcareous soils with good drainage, sandy to loamy texture, and no salinity problems; with a pH between 6.5 and 8.5. It adapts to rainfall conditions of 200 to 1,800 mm and the optimum is around 400 mm. The temperature range for its growth is 6 to 36 ºC, and the optimum is 15 to 16 ºC.

Uses of nopal cactus

It is used to feed goats, cattle, sheep, and pigs, as well as poultry and rabbits, because it is a very useful alternative source of fodder in times of drought and because it provides digestible energy, water, and vitamins. They should be combined with other foods due to their low protein content. The stalks remain alive for up to 12 months. This feature is particularly useful for animal feeding since nopal cactus cladodes can supply and partially replace the water needs of livestock for a long time. The consumption of 40 kg of nopal per day provides the cattle with 35 liters of water (at 85 percent humidity).

Nopal, a food source that must be protected

In Mexico, nopal is a basic food, with a great culinary tradition and high nutritional content. Taking care of the nopal moth plague is to guarantee food. The nopal moth is a pest that represents a threat to the diversity and ecosystems of the species belonging to the Opuntia, the cactus genus to which nopal belongs. Although it is currently absent from the country, it represents a latent danger, since it is capable of exterminating most species of cactus and nopal.

It is currently found in the United States (Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia) Cuba, Puerto Rico, Cayman Islands, New Caledonia, Antigua, Nevis, St. Kitts, Montserrat, Antilles, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Hawaii, Mauritius, Ascension Islands, St. Helena, Haiti, South Africa and Australia. The adult of the insect of this plague is of grayish-brown color, of three centimeters with the extended wings. It also presents three black bands along with the wings and the edges of the wings are grayish-white. The insect copulates at night, and the next day, the female deposits the eggs on the leaves of the nopal cactus.

The female deposits 60 to 150 eggs, one on top of the other, forming a column that simulates a cactus spine 2.5 to three centimeters long. The larvae that emerge from the eggs enter the nopal plant the same day they are born and feed on the tissues of the stalk. The main damages caused by the nopal moth are a yellow color in the plant tissue, exudation of liquid, and excrements of the larvae; the damaged stalks wither and die. The appearance of a mass of eggs on the stalk at certain times of the year is another clear sign of infestation.

Throughout the years, nopal has been part of the Mexican daily diet; it is rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, besides its commercial production, allows exporting 350 thousand tons of stalk and 750 thousand tons of tuna every year. If it enters the country, the cactus moth would affect approximately 30,000 fruit and vegetable producers and the cactus processing industries, in addition to ending these cactuses, causing a loss of soil and serious damage to the country's ecology.

Textile leather made with nopal

In recent years, nopal has proven to be an inexhaustible source of products, from the rich fruits (prickly pears) and their edible stalks to the obtaining of biodiesel. Now a new product is being presented, "the leather" of nopal, a type of fabric or textile that is made of 50% nopal and cotton, with different thicknesses, breathable, with a 10-year guarantee.

Nopal
In addition to contributing to food production, nopal provides ecosystem services. Photo: Agencies

Two young entrepreneurs from the state of Jalisco in Mexico, Adrián López and Marte Cázarez invented this type of leather, creating it as an alternative to the use of animal skins, considering it more environmentally friendly, breathable, and durable. Its quality is such that it can be used in fabrics for the manufacture of clothing (clothes, shoes, wallets), furniture, and in the automotive industry. The leather can be manufactured in different thicknesses and textures, it has high resistance and flexibility. Recently, the authors of this technology presented it with great success at the international exhibition of innovation in the textile industry in Milan, Italy.

Source: SEMARNAT