As May melts into June, so too goes the procession of flowers.
This spring’s incredible display of Scorpionweeds have
faded and the blood-orange blossoms of globemallows have deflated
under summer’s heat. Fields of starch-white evening
primrose and sego lilies, Utah’s State Flower, are also
in the seed-production queue. Even the barrel cacti, the scarlet-flowered
hedgehog and the pastel-colored fishhook, are ebbing on the
floral tide. Though other plants take up summer’s petal
procession, it is the other cactus representative that I wish
With flattened pads
joined together like some Tinker Toy creation, these cacti
crank up their floral displays in the early stage of summer.
Flowers tend to open slowly in the day, awaiting the daily
warmth which, in turn, motivates the insect pollinators that
will be spreading the cacti’s genetic heritage. Though
there are several species of prickly-pears that grow here,
there is often hybridizing that makes identification difficult.
And besides, its not really the flowers that are my focus.
Sure, the flowers are
gorgeous in their yellows, pinks and reds. The numerous yellow
stamens located within the flowers are often a stark contrast
to the color of the petals. Also, a look inside the flower
will often reveal colorful insects wading through the sea
of pollen and stamens. But it’s not really these bugs
that I want to focus on either.
As you investigate
these prickly-pears, incidentally named for the spiny pear-shaped
fruits, try to find a plant that resembles a causality from
the Spitball Wars. Don’t tell me you never participated
in one of those nighttime waded-up-tissue, straw-blowgun-delivery
wars. I wouldn’t believe you anyway if you tried to
deny it. Now your and my childhood are also not the focus
of this story, as well.
Back to the cacti and
one called Opuntia polyacantha, the scientific name for one
of these cacti. The name Opuntia is after a plant that grew
near Opus in Ancient Greece, while polyacantha means “many
spined”. Fall into one and you’ll remember this
name forever. But this article is not just about the derivation
of plant names.
No. It is about bugs
in a rug. In particular, the spit-wad resembling scale insect
that is found on prickly pear cacti pads. This scale insect
is called the cochineal bug (Dactytopius confusus). These
cactus-pad flat insects secrete a white waxy material over
themselves that protects the insect from predators and the
environment. Since the insects don’t move about on the
plant, this waxy coating is their final resting stage. Incidentally,
confusus means “deceptive” in reference to the
insect’s white cover.
Cochineal means “scarlet-colored”
and is a very appropriate name for these soft-bodied insects.
Tease aside the white coating and beneath is a quarter-inch
long red bag - the female cochineal bug. By “bag”
I don’t mean old, rather it is a reference to the shape
and texture of this insect.
And here is where the story gets a bit more interesting.
When the Spanish conquistador
Hernan Cortes was conquering the Aztecs in the early 1500s,
he discovered a highly developed textile industry that produced
cloth with brilliant red coloring. The Aztecs had been collecting
cochineal bugs and producing a red dye from them. Although
this may not be the origin of “bug in a rug” it
certainly gives new meaning to the phrase.
As most conquerors
do, the Spaniards sent bags of dried cochineal insects back
to Spain. From there the use of this red dye spread to many
countries and for various uses. Michelangelo is said to have
used the dye in his paintings, the early British “redcoats”
were dyed with cochineal insects, and rumor has it that the
first U.S. flag made by Betsy Ross incorporated cochineal
red stripes into its pattern.
Though synthetic dyes
have mostly replaced cochineal sources, the dye is still used
in foods, drugs and cosmetics. Peru is the major supplier
of the dye, supplying 80% of the world’s cochineal in
both dye and insect form. An estimated 50,000 people harvest
and process the insects in that country. I wonder if the first
native person to squish a cochineal bug realized the ripple
effect their action would have on the rest of humanity, on
the bug itself and perhaps on a plain-colored rug.