When I bought my house in 1992, there was a small cactus growing close to my front door. I had no idea what it was (other than a “cactus”) at the time, but I watched it grow over the years into a healthy specimen.
Later, I researched this plant and found it was a cactus common to the area called a “beaver tail.” I could certainly see where it got its name. It’s also called a prickly pear (or nopales in Spanish), due to the fruit it produces.
The entire plant can be eaten, but I hear it’s best to process the plant when it is young. Older plants can become tough. Both the plant and the fruit can be eaten.
The cactus contains a large amount of fiber and pectin that can lower blood glucose levels – a bonus for Type-2 diabetics, those suffering from high cholesterol, and victims of obesity. The plant has also been tested and shown to aid in colitis, diarrhea and other conditions such as viral infections.
You can use this plant in jellies, candies and other dishes such as the Mexican dish called “nopales” or other recipes that can be found online.
I was impressed with the overall health benefits of this plant, but I also made an unplanned discovery when researching this unique cactus.
About 10 years into home ownership, I noticed a small amount of white, fluffy substance on the cactus. I wasn’t sure what it was, so I took a sample to a local nursery. They told me they thought it was a “fungus.” I purchased a fungicide which had no results.
However, I did notice that when I sprayed the plant, the white fluff would produce a purplish liquid. After researching this so-called fungus and the plant’s natural enemies, I found that the white fuzzy stuff wasn’t a fungus at all, but a type of scale called cochineal (Dactylopius coccus to be exact).
As it turns out, this particular type of scale has played an enormous role in the textile, cosmetic, food, science and art industries.
This “fluff” is produced by the female cochineal insect that is colored by red pigment and is only about one-sixteenth of an inch long. The male measures half her length. The mature male has wings and legs, but the female has neither.
Similar to the related aphid, the female inserts her proboscis through the skin of the cactus – where she remains for life – extracting the juice. In doing so, she produces a white, frothy substance that resembles fungus. This coating protects her from predatory insects and birds, and it shades her from the sun. This insect may fall prey to caterpillars or ladybugs, just like aphids; however, when over-abundant, this insect will in time kill the host cactus.
The female produces eggs, and when they hatch, the legged juveniles (called crawlers) migrate to the edge of the cactus pad. The wingless female crawlers produce filaments that lift them into the wind to a new host. Then they lose their legs and breed.
The winged males fulfill their role by searching for mates. The males die within a few days.
In history, the Spanish took advantage of the Aztecs’ long use of the textile dye, which added to the Spanish conquest. The Spanish kept the secret of the dye for years, and it was determined that the cash export was second only to silver in the mid-1500s. This dye was brought to Europe, being the main use for royalty, military, national fashion, cosmetics, dyes for foods, and for pigments of the master painters of the time. Microbiologists have used the dye to stain slide specimens.
Regardless of the use, a heavy price is paid. It takes approximately 70,000 cochineal insects to manufacture one pound of dye.
Today, Guatemala and other Central and Latin American countries have a large industry producing cacti farms with the intent to infest them with cochineal. It has become a profitable industry with a high demand for many products.
As for my cactus … well, about five years ago, the scale took over and eventually killed my plant, regardless of what I did to help it survive. No matter how much I tried to keep the scale under control and the cactus healthy, fate did not seem to be on my side. I was able to produce offshoots from the original cactus plant that survived with no scale to be seen.
I learned so much about the plant, the health benefits, and the contributions that this plant and its symbiotic parasite provide to our modern day industry.
I respect this cactus, the scale, and the natural process we are privileged to encounter. Nature is such a “give and take” entity, which is why I’m always in awe with Nature.
Stay aware and keep your eyes open.
Mari Carbajal is a docent-naturalist at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center.