For an illustrated version, see The EnvironMentor vol 7 no 1 pp 20-21

In ancient Mexico, the Aztec people told blood-curdling stories of their many gods. 

One Aztec myth says that Huitzilopochtli (god of war and the Sun) killed his own older sister, flinging her head into the sky where she became the goddess of the Moon! But her son Copil vowed revenge. In an epic battle, the war god ripped out Copil's heart and threw it into Lake Texcoco where it landed on an island and grew into a prickly-pear cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica. This cactus has large red fruits, almost the shape and size of a human heart...

The Aztec people chose this victorious war god as their sponsor, and conquered many other tribes in Mexico. When they sought a place to build their capitol city, Huitzilopochtli ordered them to look for an eagle eating a snake, sitting on a cactus on a rock in a lake. Their myth says that they wandered and searched for 157 years. Finally, in 1325 C.E., they came to Lake Texcoco. There on the island they indeed spotted an eagle, clutching a rattlesnake and perched on a cactus bearing large red fruits. There they built their city Tenochtitlán, which gradually grew as the swampy lake was drained and filled in to make more and more land. It became Mexico City.

Today Mexico City is the capitol of Mexico. The Mexican coat of arms shows that eagle clutching a snake and sitting on a prickly pear cactus laden with ripe fruits, the sign that this was the right spot to build their capitol city.

Prickly pear facts.

Although the Mexican O. ficus-indica doesn't grow this far north, Oklahoma has as many as 10 species and subspecies of Opuntia (depending on how you split the taxonomic hairs). Many of our Opuntias also have juicy red fruits. If you know how to peel them while avoiding the prickles, they are tasty raw or made into candy, jelly and syrup. Song birds love to eat them too.

Opuntias all have fleshy, paddle-shaped stems (cladodes) armed with clusters of tiny spines (glochids). Some species also have big sharp spines (= modified leaves) which serve as spears for the loggerhead shrike, a bird who uses them to stab and store the insects and small reptiles it likes to eat. If you carefully rub off the spines and slice the young pads in strips, you can cook them like green beans! Some Oklahoma grocery stores now offer this vegetable, called Nopales in Mexico, in their produce section.

Prickly pear cacti store a lot of water in their fleshy cladodes, enabling them to survive drought. Their spines defend them so well that cattle and deer avoid them; therefore they can come to dominate a pasture, especially if hungry animals have removed the competition from plants they prefer to eat. Ranchers sometimes control prickly pears with carefully prescribed burns. Furthermore, once the spines have been singed off, cattle can safely eat them.

Meanwhile, these well-defended cacti offer a safe haven to bunch grasses and other pasture plants that the grazing animals prefer. They even protect the nests of ground-nesting birds such as bobwhite quail, discouraging raccoons from stealing the eggs.

Oklahoma Opuntias have beautiful flowers in early summer, usually yellow but sometimes white or pink. They can be valuable low-maintenance, drought tolerant features in xeriscape landscaping. In prairies and pastures they provide shelter and food for wildlife. And the red fruits remind us of a valiant son and the origins of a nation.

Story sources: Ancient History Encyclopedia articles on Huitzilopochtli, Copil, Tenochititlån.

Fact Sources:

Prickly Pear Cactus: the “Defending” Champion by Jena Donnell, pp 4-5 in Your Side of the Fence winter 2015 Central Oklahoma Cactus and Succulent Society: Opuntia species in Oklahoma.