Saturday, December 3, 2011

$$$$$$$

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?

21 comments:

  1. I had no idea -- fascinating!

    Is it strange that I want cherry jello now?

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  2. Have you tried rubbing alcohol on a Q-tip? It dissolves waxy coating on mealbugs; maybe it will work on your pests.

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  3. Always something new to learn at Rock Rose! Thanks, Jenny.

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  4. Fascinating! I noticed those on my prickly pear yesterday and planned to research it. Now I have all the details to go on.

    I do remember that the redcoats were dyed with beetles, but certainly did not know they were growing in my back yard.

    Thanks for this amazing post!

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  5. Another good lesson.

    I have seen this on prickly pear around here. Now, I know what it is.

    Thanks...

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  6. Great post. I'm going to squash some of the scale on my holly tree to see if I have $$$$$$. But I already know it will NOT be red.

    So, are you going to collect a bunch of these little trouble makers and make a SCARLET Red Rock Rose T-shirt? You could wear it as a warning to the others and tell them it was made from their squashed friends!
    Seriously, thanks for telling this story in full. I had only heard snippets and had always been curious about this dye.
    David/ :-)

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  7. Used to see cocchineal stuff on many cacti here, but not the last 5+ years. The purple when you squash it looks similar to the color of the ripe fruit!

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  8. Alan- Oh, it probably has the coal tar version! I could send you some bugs and you could just make your own.
    Nell Jean-I may give this a try to see for myself what is under there. Then I will dry them and keep them to show visitors.
    Cat- Thanks. So much to learn so little time! At least for me.
    Shirley- Remember now, they are not beetles. There is a very bad photo of them on the internet and it is a beetle. Just shows how you need to watch out for wrong info. out there.
    Linda- I was really fascinated when I heard all about them. They are ne pest that I kind of like having around, unless they become too invasive. I like prickly pear.
    David-You know I might just paint my face. That's what the indians did. I should get some wode too being a native of that fair isle.

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  9. Desert Dweller- It is interesting that when I get that yucca bug it also squashes red. Must be this same carminic acid. Of course no one wants to collect them because they are too tiny.

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  10. very interesting, i thought it was mealy bugs.

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  11. Very interesting post! I'd much rather eat cochineal scale than coal tar. In this country, we don't hear much about bug eating, except on survivalist-type reality TV shows, but insects are an important food protein source in Latin America, Asia and Africa, particularly in rural regions where meat is scarce. Admittedly, the idea puts me off, although I know it's just a cultural thing. I readily eat other arthropods like crab, shrimp and crawfish, so why not eat a bug? Entomophagy - could it be the next foodie frontier?

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  12. Thank you for putting me straight. I'd thought it was a cochineal beetle. And I had no idea the imposter red dye is made from coal tar! Your finger looks rather gruesome!

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  13. Greggo- Certainly looks that way and they are similarly up to no good. But then everyone deserves a meal.
    CarolineYou are right. A massive untapped protein source. Can't imagine why we are selective, as you say. I used to eat snails but they had to be slathered in garlic butter. Oysters are not on my list.
    Desiree-I had always called it the cochineal beetle myself. It is much easier to say than the cochineal scale insect.

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  14. That was interesting! Pass me the cochineal dyed cake and I'll pass on the #40 coal tar red. gail

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  15. Neato mosquito.. or should I say cochineal.

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  16. As I believe someone else mentioned I thought by the look of your finger you'd smashed a prickly pear fruit!

    This is very interesting information...and I hop to never see them on my prickly pear...

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  17. I thought you had hurt his finger!

    Really interesting that dye, I didn't know!

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  18. Very cool. I've seen this stuff growing on cactus and never given it a second thought. Next time I see it, I will definitely give it a closer look.

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  19. A few months ago, I had a conference in San Antonio and so one of my coworkers and I decided to split a hotel room and take the Friday afternoon off to do the Missions Tour. We happened to hit one of them at the same time the docent was giving a tour of the place - and my God, it was awesome. The gentleman was quite the botanist and kept pointing out all sorts of fun plants and what have you - one of things he pointed out was the cochineal beetle (which is really scale, not a beetle). great fun, and highly recommended.

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  20. I knew about the cochineal bug and red dye, but I didn't know the history of the Native Americans who used it or the Spanish who coveted it. Very interesting history lesson!

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  21. That is so interesting and amazing! Thanks for the info!

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