It has been used has a natural fence that keeps in livestock and marks the boundaries of family lands. They are incredibly resilient and often grow back.They grow wild throughout the American southwest, down to South America and up to Canada.
It grows well in many areas of Africa and Australia and the mediterranean. It will grow at elevations ranging from sea level to 15,000 feet.
The prickly pear plant has two different edible sections: the pad or stem of the cactus (nopal), which is a vegetable, and the cactus pear, which is a fruit and considered a berry. Nopales have a flavor and slimy texture similar to okra.
In the early spring the smaller young pads are the most succculent, have the most flavor, and have the fewest spines.
Nopales can be found in many grocery stores, especially in areas with a large Hispanic culture. You can find them raw in the produce section, either sliced or diced in plastic bags.
In the late spring and early summer for a period of several weeks each pad produces several three-to-four-inch wide flowers that bloom in an array of colors, depending on the variety, from subtle to brilliant tones of yellows and oranges, pinks and reds. When the blooms fade, the edible fruits form.
The fruits ripen from early spring through late fall, depending of the variety. Those that are best for eating fresh ripen from September through November. Many of the fruits sold in California are imported from Mexico to extend the market
It is also called cactus pear and indian fig ("Figadindi" in italian).
In Israel, the cactus fig is called tzabar similar to and derived from the Arabic 'saber'.
This is also the origin of the term sabra used to describe for Jewish person born in Israel. The cactus is called 'saber' in Arabic, which also means 'tenacity'.