Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Archive for February 13th, 2012

Cochineal: a closer look

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This morning’s post showed the pad of a prickly pear cactus, Opuntia engelmannii, that had lots of cochineal insects, Dactylopius coccus, on it. Here’s a closeup to give you an even better look at the chaotic, colorful, and some would say gory details.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 13, 2012 at 1:02 PM


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Click for greater sharpness.

The most recent post in this prickly pear series that’s been interwoven with spring wildflowers mentioned that it’s common when looking at the green pads of prickly pear cacti, Opuntia engelmannii, to see white splotches that cochineal insects, Dactylopius coccus, create as a form of protective covering. In past centuries various native peoples and then colonial Spaniards and the resulting Mexicans used the bodies of the insects found inside the white covering to make a valuable reddish-purple dye. Here’s a section of the Wikipedia article on the subject:

Cochineal dye was used by the Aztec and Maya peoples of Central and North America. Eleven cities conquered by Moctezuma in the 15th century paid a yearly tribute of 2000 decorated cotton blankets and 40 bags of cochineal dye each. During the colonial period the production of cochineal (grana fina) grew rapidly. Produced almost exclusively in Oaxaca by indigenous producers, cochineal became Mexico’s second most valued export after silver. Soon after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire it began to be exported to Spain, and by the seventeenth century was a commodity traded as far away as India. The dyestuff was consumed throughout Europe and was so highly prized that its price was regularly quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges.

The photograph above shows a section of a pad I encountered in the “panhandle” of St. Edward’s Park on October 12, 2011. The pad was densely coated in places with cochineal coverings and insects that seemed to have been partly crushed, though I found no hint of anything that might have banged into the pad. This was and remains the greatest amount of cochineal color bleeding through the white that I’ve ever seen.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 13, 2012 at 5:43 AM

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