Cochineal Scale and the Color Red
Red. It is hard to imagine now, but during the Renaissance, something as mundane as the color red signified power and wealth, and wearing it was allowed only for aristocrats and high-ranking church officials. Red dye sources were scarce, expensive, and not always very red. Enter the fabulous scarlet dye created from cochineal scale insects that the Aztecs had been cultivating for hundreds of years. In the years after Cortez sacked Mexico, shipments of the dye from the New World back to Spain were more valuable than any other export except silver, and the powers of Europe dove in for their share while scientists of the day tried to crack the secret of the source. It took quite awhile to figure out it was an insect! Author Amy Butler Greenfield chronicles it all in her highly readable A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire (Harper, 2006). As a Southwesterner, after reading, perhaps you may scout your garden, seeking a tiny, overlooked life form that could be the next great thing!
Favorite or New Plant
If you want to grow and harvest cochineal scale for your own natural dye projects, try introducing it on Opuntia ficus-indica, a spineless prickly pear. It takes full sun, and is cold hardy to 22 degrees F. Spreading at a moderate rate, it forms a large shrub or tree-like sculptural shape of 12 feet tall by 18 feet wide. This prickly pear blooms in spring with yellow to orange flowers and produces beautiful large red fruits that attract native birds. Fruits can be harvested and cooked into sweet syrups or jellies. Although spineless, it still has glochids, which produce irritating little hairs that stick in the skin, so use caution when working around it!