The Houston Botanic Garden is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The ZimSculpt exhibit -- on display through June 2 -- is included in general admission.
Houston Botanic Garden - Logo

Arid Plants


Agave and the Aztecs

Agaves may bring to mind for adults the smoky flavor of mezcal, or the sharp taste of tequila in your margarita, but historically and ecologically, it is so much more.

Did you know that the indigenous people of the Americas, including the Aztecs, used agave leaves as thatch for dwellings and the fibers for making rope? Their thorns were used as needles, and the root was eaten as a staple of their diet. Every part of the plant was used.

Today many parts of the agave plant are still used. The flowers, leaves, and stalk are all edible. During the development of the flowers, sap drains to the base of the stalk. We know this sweet liquid as agave nectar and enjoy it as a sweetener for our beverages, and an alternative to sugar that does not spike blood sugar levels. The leaves of many species are still used to yield fiber similar to hemp, as well.

How to Cook Nopales

Nopales are the cooked paddles of cacti in the genus Opuntia, or pickly pears. They are chock-full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, as well as anti-inflammatory and a great source of fiber. They are hearty and make a good stand-in for meat, especially in tacos.

To prepare nopales:

  • Choose paddles that are about 6 to 8 inches long and flexible, but not soft or floppy.
  • Use a knife or potato peeler to remove the thorns and knobs from the paddles.
  • Slice them into strips or squares.


To cook nopales:

  • Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat and add the 1 Tbsp of a natural oil.
  • Add prepared nopales – about 4 medium paddles – to the skillet and sprinkle with 1 tsp salt.
  • Reduce heat to medium, and cook, covered, for about 20 minutes, or until mucilage (the thick, gluey substance found in all plants – but especially noticeable in nopales and okra – that helps the plants store water and food) evaporates.*


Once your nopales are cooked, you can enjoy them in soups, salads, tacos, etc.

*Mucilage is harmless, but some find it unappetizing. Proper cooking is key to reducing the amount of mucilage.

How to Cook Nopales
Our Mission

Enriching life through discovery, education, and the conservation of plants and the natural environment.


9:00 am — 5:00 pm

Garden Entrance
One Botanic Lane
Houston, TX 77017
Mailing Address

8205 N. Bayou Drive
Houston, TX 77017

Ticket Window
Join Our Mailing List