In Search of ….

Suggestion. Try reading the title in the voice of Leonard Nimoy. I’ve spent the last few days stalking the neighbourhood In Search Of … not big foot,  not crystal skulls or even Manõa, the lost city of gold. No. I’ve been seeking something far more wondrous: the cochineal bug.

Basically, I blame jetgirlcos at  Forty, c’est Fantastique for my latest madness.

Prickly pear flower (May)
Prickly Pear Flower (May)

more after the break

Jetgirlcos asked if there was an earth kind way to get rid of cochineal bugs. There is. Cochineal bugs are pretty fragile and can be hosed off or scraped off the prickly pear cactus host. But as I imagined doing this I started to think, “I wouldn’t want to necessarily get rid of them that way.”

Here’s a picture of what they look like around this time of year. Cochineal are true bugs and in this photo you aren’t actually seeing the bugs but the waxy coating they hide under. True bug to me usually means soul-sucking monster but these girls get a pass. They do suck the soul out of a prickly pear but that ain’t necessarily a bad thing.

image from James Denny Ward, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
image from James Denny Ward, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Cochineal insects are the source of a commercially important red dye. This dye at one time was one of Mexico’s most valuable exports — like number three after gold and silver. Pirates roamed the Atlantic Ocean hoping to run into cochineal cargo. Cochineal fell briefly out of favour when cheap red dyes were first synthesized in labs. Then people discovered that some artificially produced dyes could be carcinogenic. So many manufacturers have returned to using a natural insect-based dye. Cochineal can be found in anything with a pink or red hue: cosmetics, food, cloth. Even meat is sometimes dyed with cochineal.

I said to myself: Self! You must harvest some cochineal to make some dye. Not the vegan way of course but still … how could I resist? Sadly, I searched in vain. Even though nearly everyone in Austin grows prickly pear cactus I couldn’t find a single infestation. Every pad for miles was clean and green. Never thought I would lament plant health …

Prickly Pear Cactus

One reason nearly everyone in Austin grows prickly pear cactus (even I do and by now the whole world knows about my too much shade problem) is they are pretty much indestructible.

I started my prickly pear cactus after finding a pad that had been knocked off one of my neighbour’s plants. It was just laying there on the side-walk gasping like a fish out of water so I took it home and shoved it in some dirt. It grew roots and has just carried on. How tough is this plant? Well, let me just say this: I remember seeing a couple of varieties growing wild in Southern Alberta. Zone 3 cold hardiness. Really.

If you ever decide to operate a cochineal farm you will want to grow either Opuntia tomentosa var. hernandezi or Opuntia ficus-indica.

Opuntia tomentosa var. hernandez is native to Oaxaca and is called “Nopal de San Gabriel.” It has scary spines and an orange flower.

People around Austin seem to favour growing Nopal de Castilla (Opuntia ficus-indica) which has been cultivated in what we now call Mexico since Pre-Columbian times. It has yellow flowers and lacks those big spines. Still plenty prickly though.

Want to learn more?

Books have been written.

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield

Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color by Elena Phipps

Cochineal: A Bright Red Animal Dye
This site is LaVerne M. Dutton’s master’s thesis. It is a treasure and even includes the sacred prayers of the cochineal ritual.

Cochineal Production and Trade from Central America: Pre-Conquest to 1650
From the intro: “The study of clothing is more than the study of personal taste; it is the study of socio-economics, politics, trade, craftsmanship, etiquette, social order between classes and social history.” Forgive me if I channel Spock again to say: fascinating.

EDIT: Replaced the post’s original black & white image with public domain colour image below:

odex Mendoza. 42v. The cochinealtribute shown  looks like bags of marbles
A page from the Codex Mendoza. The cochineal tribute shown looks like two bags of red marbles
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17 thoughts on “In Search of ….

  1. Oh, too bad you couldn’t have seen my moms poor cactus! I’ll post a picture of it later. We ended up washing the poor thing with the hose, and my mom said she will keep doing that. As much as I appreciate red dye, my mom loves her landscaping and doesn’t want to buy a new cactus :-) great post! very interesting!!

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  2. Gee, I had no idea about the cochineal bug and red dye. How weirdly fascinating. Now I know how to get my nieces to go “Eeeew!” whenever they wear something red. As for the prickly pear, do you really expect us to believe that a pad was knocked off just in time for you to mosey on by and pick it up? Hey, but I’m not criticizing, a gardener’s gotta do what he or she’s gotta do.

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    1. Haha. ESPECIALLY if they wear lipstick, It is true about the pad and the pups from someone’s agave that had been pulled up and left in a pile for the taking. I <3 my neighbours.

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  3. Cochineal bugs! How exotic. But if you manage to breed them you will have to squash them all to make cochineal. I can’ t see you being too keen on that.

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  4. This was something I hadn’t counted on learning about today or ever, but it sure is interesting. AND it’s always good to have someone to blame moments of insanity on. ;-)

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    1. haha thx. My moments of insanity probably outweigh the sober when it comes to these things but yeah haha … THIS time someone else is taking the fall.

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    1. I love how something that could be easily despised or overlooked can have great value … and in case of a zombie apocalypse we can still have colourful things.

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  5. Isn’t that always the way? When you aren’t interested in some sort of buggy infestation (other than to get rid of it, say…) they are all over the place but when you go out hunting for them? Nowhere to be found. I might have something of a cochineal thing going on atop one of my agaves – at least it looks white and furry-ish. I usually leave limited infestations alone because they seem to self correct and/or balance out if I’m patient. I’m wondering what the weather has to do with cochineal prevalence? Maybe our unusual rains this summer interfere with their populations some way?

    PS – I really enjoy all the background information you source and cite. Once my interest is caught by something I get pretty geeked out investigating and I appreciate your approach!

    PPS – Before you mentioned Leonard Nimoy (as Spock) I was hearing your post narrated by Morgan Freeman.

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    1. Of course Morgan Freeman works, too. lol

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Cochineal are really fragile and people who harvest them protect them from too much sun, rain and wind! For real. That amuses me to no end. I am certain the rains we had probably knocked their population down because I SWEAR in years past I saw them everywhere.

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