Most people visiting the deserts of the American Southwest are slightly surprised whenever they see any of the Opuntia cacti commonly called “prickly pear”. “Where’s the pear?”, they ask, especially if they visit in the winter or spring. Well, that’s because the fruit hasn’t developed yet. Like most fruits, they let you and everything else know that they’re ripe and ready, and the season for prickly pear fruit generally runs between the beginning of October to the end of the year. The season generally isn’t determined by whether the fruit goes bad, but whether or not it’s still on the plant, because it’s quite popular.
Among other folks, prickly pear fruit is very popular among humans, and has been a staple in this area pretty much since humans first arrived in the Americas. Most popular guidebooks on cactus make a big deal about how the fruit is used for candy, jams, jellies, and the like, so a lot of tourists and new residents risk getting poked by spines and snagged by insect pests to grab a fruit or two. Without fail, they’re disappointed at the very subtle and mild taste, compared to what the brilliant purple coloration promises. They’re also disappointed by the number and consistency of the seeds, which have all of the thrill of sucking on aquarium gravel. (Do NOT ask me know I know this, because you won’t like the answer.) Even so, once you get used to the taste, you can understand why this is one of the two main commercially raised cactus fruits, with the other being dragonfruit cactus.
(The trick to eating prickly pear, by the way, is to slice them in halves or quarters and toast the cut surfaces slightly, because it carmelizes the sugars in the juice and really brings out the flavor. Prickly pear may never replace pomegranates, but they have their charms. As for the jams and jellies, just be prepared to boil it down a lot to concentrate those sugars. I’ve found that dropping the whole fruit, by the kilo, into a smoothie machine and draining off the juice is the fastest and most practical way to get enough juice to be worth your time.)
Well, the seeds are as voluminous and as tough as they appear, but they have to be. In the wild, they’re a major autumn food source for a lot of local animals, including coyotes, foxes (red and grey), raccoons, opossums, peccaries, feral pigs, skunks, the occasional mockingbird wanting a taste treat, and cattle. The only thing more common this time of the year than prickly pear skins along clumps of Opuntia are the seed-filled scat of some critter that had a hearty meal a few days before. Since the seed coatings are as tough as they are, that predigestion seems to encourage their germination in spring, which is one of the reasons why prickly pear takes over most cattle land in West Texas. The other reason is that the rest of the plant is so unappetizing, both in flavor and in general inedibility (both from spines and toughness), that even goats won’t eat the cactus unless faced with starvation. The stories about ranchers burning the spines of prickly pear to feed cattle during drought? They’re true, but at that point, the cattle would eat plastic garbage bags first if given a choice. (Again, do NOT ask me how I know this.)
This time of the year is also a great opportunity to see another bit of Opuntia natural history, tied to human history. In the autumn, many Opuntia pads have big clusters of white fluff on them, and many just assume that this is some odd mold. The more adventurous will scrape away the “mold” and find a small insect inside. Squish the bug, and it lets loose a disturbing amount of bright red juice, and every clump of “mold” has at least one bug underneath it.
The bug in question is Dactylopius coccinus, and that red juice is commonly known as carmine or cochineal. Today, these scale insects are gathered, dried and processed as food colorings, among other things, but their value as an intense dye stretches back centuries.
And now a quick digression into a discussion on exotic invasives, and why Australia used to be rotten with prickly pear. When the Spanish conquered most of the Americas, they rapidly discovered the value of cochineal dye, and before long, it was as valuable an export to Europe as chocolate or vanilla. It was added to fat to make carmine, sure, but its real value was as a stable and intense cloth dye, and the famed red coats of the British Army used cochineal dye to give that eye-popping color.
Anyone looking on the Spanish occupation of the Americas notes that the Spanish weren’t just good at recognizing markets for American products, but at keeping a tight grip on intellectual property. While Spanish traders had no problems selling chocolate throughout Europe, for instance, in no way were they willing to give out any secrets about the trees that grew xocolatl or their care. (To give an example, while Spanish explorers and administrators had extensive experience with the common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, throughout Central and South America, they managed to keep that knowledge under control for over 300 years, and stories of bats that drank blood only started seeping into Europe about the time Bram Stoker was writing Dracula.) So long as the Spanish were a major force in the Americas, only they and their allies were allowed access to the scientific wealth of the new territories, and English, Dutch, or French explorers were driven off with extreme prejudice.
Well, that would have worked if Mexico, the center of cochineal production through the Eighteenth Century, hadn’t fought and won its war of independence, because that gave plenty of opportunities for explorers to learn secrets previously open only to the Spanish. (And when I say “Mexico”, remember that a big stretch of what is now United States territory, particularly a place you’ve never heard of called “Texas”, was Mexican territory at the time.) The secret of cochineal production got out, and now all anyone needed to do was establish a population of cochineal bugs and their necessary food.
Hence, while prickly pear was introduced with poor success to many areas, the botanist Sir Joseph Banks put bugs in ears (pun intended) about establishing a cochineal industry in Australia. It would have worked, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling chemists developing artificial dyes through the Nineteenth Century, and the market for cochineal collapsed almost literally overnight. The cactus survived, though, and rapidly took over the continent. Now under relative control, various Opuntia species still thrive in Australia, for the same reasons they do so incredibly well in the Americas. Namely, the individual pads sprout into new plants if given half a chance, and the seeds are spread by wildlife glad for the fruit bounty.
In this case, I don’t think the ranch is going to become a hub for cochineal production, no matter its value as a food and cosmetics colorant. Instead, I’m looking forward to pointing it out to my nieces and relate “Hey, if you want, I can make you your own lipstick while you wait. Let me get some beef tallow and a few bugs.” At that point, the responsibility of smacking me in the head while yelling “What the hell is WRONG with you?” will move to a new generation.
I’ve seriously considered making a field trip to gather cochineal… the main problem is, it takes so MANY! One of these days, though…
When you’re ready, let me know. I’ll be glad to help out.
I could read about opuntias all day! I find them completely fascinating and want to thank you for all this excellent research/info.
Thank you. I’m really starting to get an appreciation for them myself. When I was in high school, they were considered vulgar by cactus enthusiasts, but I’m just as interested in all of the related plant and animal life dependent upon them as I am in the plant itself, so “vulgar” just means “freely available for study” to me.