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.
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.
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: