Prickly Pears

01 Aug

Photo by JB

Prickly Pears

Opuntia species


Florida is home to several species of Prickly Pear Cacti of the genus Opuntia, some native, others cultivated.   In the area of “Treasure Coast Natives” we have Opuntia humifusa and Opuntia stricta.  The former differs from O. stricta by having glossy (vs. flat-tone) stems, on average smaller pads (but they overlap in size), and spine clusters with usually just 1-3 major spines (as opposed to usually more, up to around 10).

A third species a person might see hereabouts, and not native, is the red (vs. yellow) -flowered Opuntia cochenillifera.  This cultivated species has spineless pads, which are eaten as “nopales,” as are other Opuntia species which usually have to be peeled to get past the spines.  Opuntia fruits, tunas, are red and tasty, but handle them gingerly, because the nearly-microscopic hairs called glochids burrow in your skin and keep you awake later.  More interestingly, the name cochenillifera means cochineal-bearing, which brings us to an important point.

Cochineal Bugs resemble scale insects in their ability to make a waxy “nest” for the females to colonize and suck out the plant juice.  The bugs squish bright red-purple and were the basis for the historical international carmine dye industry originally based in Mexico and spread eventually to other regions.  Carmine dye is a bright red fabric colorant, “the roadcoats are coming,” serving also in foods and cosmetics, sometimes as “dye E120.”   Use in edibles and cosmetics has fallen off, in part due to concerns with toxicity.  There are cochineal farms in South America and Mexico.  Ounce per ounce cochineal extract is  worth more than gold (at least at outdated gold prices).  (Investment advice: if you are worried about hyper-inflation don’t bury gold under the doghouse; instead, move to the dunes and plant prickly pears.)

Tunas by JB

An effort to start a carmine dye industry in Australia failed but resulted in American Opuntia stricta becoming our revenge for their Melaleuca.

This is all leading up to the fact that Cochineal Bugs have variably spread to and been imported to Prickly Pear populations far and wide, including here in Florida.  Walking in the scrub it is a frequent experience to see unhealthy looking Opuntias with the tell-tale cochineal wax.   Embedded in the wax are the bugs.  If you can get one out, perhaps on a knife tip, without pricking your finger and mash it, you’ll have a purple-red fingertip tattoo thanks to natural dye E120.


Posted by on August 1, 2012 in Prickly Pear


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2 responses to “Prickly Pears

  1. Mary Hart

    August 2, 2012 at 3:26 am

    This takes me back to my 20 years in St. Lucia – Oputia made a good burglar deterrent around homes!

  2. George Rogers

    August 2, 2012 at 7:49 am

    And how! Shortyl after we moved there (Barbados) one of my toddler sons, until then inexperienced with cacti, stepped on one of the pads and got the ol’ hotfoot.


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