THE tuna plant may not be as popular in herbal medicine as its cousin the aloe vera, but that doesn't mean that Jamaicans haven't been using opuntia ficus indica (prickly pear plant, India fig opuntia or Barbary fig) both as food and medicine.
A member of the cactus family, the plant has been used in drinks and smoothies, for detoxing, in herbal teas, and is a good source of dietary fibre, vitamin C and other antioxidants. It's said to help with problems like upset stomach, indigestion and diarrhoea, back pain, stomach pain, and also reduces fevers and helps with menstrual problems, says herbalist Kenute Harrison.
“You can use it in the same way you use the aloe plant — removing the skin and applying the flesh to treat cuts and burns, as it stimulates healing,” Harrison said. “It also helps with scars and stretch marks, mosquito bites and even eczema.”
He said that as a beauty aid, the tuna plant is a good hair conditioner, and helps prevent and treat dandruff and other hair conditions.
“Use it for hair shedding, to combat hair loss and to help conditions like alopecia and temporary hair loss that occurs, for example, after pregnancy,” he said.
He said the plant also has immense beauty benefits for women — it reduces the appearance of wrinkles and stimulates collagen growth, as it's also a good source of vitamins E and K.
“It also won't leave a residue behind, so you can also use it as a moisturiser, without worrying that it will make your skin oily, and best of all, it's good for all skin types,” he said.
To use it, he said, you simply remove the skin and use the flesh as is, or blend with your favourite oil.
On the health front, Harrison said the tuna plant has a number of benefits, chief of which is its use in detoxing.
“I actually find that it's a better detox than the aloe vera for really cleaning you out, and just having an overall effect on cleansing and even weight loss,” he said.
He said that the plant, and its fruit, are used in cooking in other parts of the world, but Jamaicans generally don't explore it beyond use as a skin care agent and a detox.
“I'd say grow some in your backyard then do some research on how you can use it, and incorporate it in your diet,” Harrison said. “I'm all for promoting the foods of the earth over anything that's processed.”