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Sunday December 17 2017
Nopal: The Green Heart of Mexico “king of cactuses”
Negocios ProMéxico

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The nutritional and medicinal properties of the nopal make it the “king of cactuses” —and it is 100% Mexican. Historians and anthropologists confirm that it has existed in Mexico for some 25,000 years. And today, science is proving all the hidden wonders underneath the spines of the fleshy leaves of the nopal, the most Mexican of all our foods.

Contrary to the popular saying, there is something “more Mexican than mole”: the nopal, the cactus that officially represents Mexico on its coat of arms. Give or take a metaphor or two, ancient Mexico was founded verily “upon a nopal” … but not just any old one but a very special specimen: a nopal on which an eagle and a snake were engaged in mortal combat.

That was the sign that the god Huitzilopochtli —the sun god— had given to the Aztecs to build what would become one of Mesoamerica’s last major empires before the Spanish conquest: Tenochtitlan, meaning “the place of the nopal leaves.”

Beyond the legend, the nopal has certainly always been linked to the Mexican identity.

It’s a plant, or to be more exact a cactus, and it has accompanied Mexico for centuries in a myriad of ways: as a symbol of identity, as a landscape feature and a boundary, as a medicine but especially as a food. It is the most Mexican of wild foodstuffs and it continues to surprise Mexicans and foreigners alike for its taste, its offer of multiple gastronomic options and for its plentiful medicinal properties.

Heart of a Warrior

Some anthropologists say that the use of nopal in the area that comprised the Mesoamerican region can be traced back some 25,000 years, others calculate it to be older than 50,000 years. In this region —from the US to Patagonia— some 300 different varieties of this cactus have been found, at least 170 of which are native to Mexico.

In Náhuatl, Nochtli or nopalli can be translated as “fruit of the earth.” That name is meaningful since this plant only needs its seed to be buried in the earth in order to grow. It can withstand the most inhospitable conditions, it grows in desert and extremely cold regions and there are records that various traditional cultures were already using it for food and medicinal purposes.

Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s wrote an account called Los naufragios in 1528, in which he tells of the indigenous peoples from the north of Mexico saving his life by giving him this peculiar cactus to eat. Its properties and mode of preparation and cultivation are immortalized in friar Bernardino de Sahagún’s Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España.

Although the spiny, fleshy leaves of these new lands were not worth their weight in gold, samples of the nopal were taken overseas and even reached King Carlos V of Spain himself. Some primary sources from the period indicate that the king was “magically cured of a strange disease, through the application of compresses dipped in extracted nopal juice that was placed over his ulcers.”

This “miraculous cactus” travelled from Mexican lands to new territories, where it would be necessary to show the generosity of its cultivation and its prodigious qualities when consumed. And so, from the 16th century, its use has expanded. From Spain it conquered the Old World and was taken to Portugal, Greece and Italy and then on to the African continent: Algiers, Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa and, most recently, Asia has also started to take note of its many qualities.

The nopal is of savage appearance, full of spines to protect its hard leaves, and also produces colorful flowers and the prickly pear or tuna, an exquisite fruit which has its own charm and magic. The Aztecs, for example, compared tunas of an intense red hue to the bloody hearts of warriors and therefore divine properties were attached to it: they were convinced that eating tunas gave unwavering courage and resolution.

What was known through intuition in the old days is gradually proving to tally closely with scientific discoveries.

Dangerous Outside, Refreshing Inside and Healthy Throughout

Opuntia Vulgaris is the scientific name given to the plant, which belongs to the Cactaceae family. According to Helia Bravo, a biologist who devoted her life to studying and classifying Mexican cactuses, the nopal is “the king” of cactuses because of all that can be extracted and transformed from it.

There are basically two types: the Opuntia and the Nopalea, and between the two there are some 104 different varieties that can be classified in three categories: tuna nopales, vegetable nopales and fodder nopales.

Various testimonies prove that ever since pre-Hispanic times this “miraculous plant” has been used to cure fevers through its boiled juice, to heal cracked lips by using its slime; its pulp was a diarrhea remedy and its spines used to fight infections. The nopal’s fruit, the tuna, was used for cases of “fright and anger,” to cure excess bile, and the hot cladodios (leaves), were the quickest cure for ulcers and inflammations if placed against the affected area.

And if that were not enough, the nopal or the Opuntia is also an excellent foodstuff for its taste and nutritional value. This cactus, which endures every kind of climate, which grows practically wild in almost every part of Mexico and which has fed generations of Mexicans over the centuries, contains a veritable treasure chest of medicinal properties.

Recent studies have discovered that behind the protection of its fierce spines, nopales contain Vitamins A and C, a generous amount of calcium and magnesium, B complex, potassium, iron and plenty of fiber. Eating a nopal provides 17 amino acids— eight of which are essential for the human body—which help to reduce tiredness, appetite and blood-sugar levels naturally, so these cactuses are now highly recommended for people suffering from diabetes and high cholesterol levels.

Nopales are usually between three and five meters high and have an intensely green stem from which the spiny leaves sprout. Its flowers and juicy fruit are white, yellow and red.

Around 21 varieties of tunas exist and each possesses antidiarrheal and astringent qualities. Its juice contains large amounts of antioxidants. Therefore its consumption has recently jumped from the land of food products to the shop window displays of natural cosmetics, due to its age delaying properties.

And we should not forget the xoconostle or xonocoztle, better known as the “bitter tuna.” This is a nopal fruit which is too ripe to be eaten fresh but which is nevertheless a key ingredient for various typical Mexican dishes, including mole de olla.

But the list of nopal’s properties continues. If its fruits have anti-diarrheal properties, its flower is used —in infusions— as an anti-spasmodic. And because so little of the nopal goes to waste, its spines or ahuates are often used as fertilizer for the soil, since —the natural surprises seem never ending— the cultivation of nopales is able to make barren soil fertile.

More Mexican than the Nopal? No Way, José!

At the end of 2009, Mexico City’s legislative assembly announced its intention to register the denomination of origin for the nopal, specifically for the Milpa Alta variety which is, together with the Atlixco variety, the most used for “vegetable nopal” cultivations in all Mexico.

The Milpa Alta region in Mexico’s city conurbation is the largest producer of nopales in Mexico in terms of volume with around 9,000 farmers, each working an average of half a hectare, harvesting some 70,000 tons of nopal each year, in a total area of 4,500 hectares.

Milpa Alta is indeed the largest producer of vegetable nopales, and no one can deny that. But there is some question as to whether it is the original area for the variety which now bears its name


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