If you don't live in the southwest then you may be wondering what ghastly thing I have done to my finger. If you do live here then you will probably know I've been poking around in the prickly pear cactus. Carefully, I might add.
A prickly pear cactus has established itself under the red oak above the house and a few days ago I noticed a colony of Dactylopius coccus has taken up residence on some of the pads. I did try to separate the insect from its waxy coating but had no success.
Back in the 1500s I could have made myself a lot of money cultivating this white fluffy stuff-or rather what lies beneath. Often referred to incorrectly as the cochineal beetle it is in fact the cochineal scale insect.
When the Spanish explorers voyaged to South America, they were amazed at the beautiful scarlet robes worn by the inhabitants. In Europe the red dye they were using, made from an insect called the kermes, was not nearly so brightly colored. When they learnt about the origin of the dye the Spanish cornered the market and managed to keep the origin a closely guarded secret until the 1700s. The import of of cochineal from the Americas was second only to silver. Cloth dyed with cochineal became a sign of wealth and importance. It was used to dye the garments worn by the cardinals of Rome and the redcoats of England.
I first learnt about the cochineal scale about ten years ago when I was doing the docent training at the Wildflower Center. Now, I like to search out a cactus pad with scale and tell visitors about the little bottle of cochineal in my mother's kitchen cupboard. She used it to color cakes pink. As I demonstrate the existence of the scale on a prickly pear I also tell visitors about all the other products in which cochineal is used as a dye. It is the only natural red dye and used in products like lipsticks, candies, jello. If you think that's bad then think again about the substitute often used for cochineal. Red dye 40 is made from coal tar. Which would you rather eat?
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