Lost Heritage: Cochineal and the Endangered Prickly Pear in Spain

Lost Heritage: Cochineal and the Endangered Prickly Pear in Spain

In recent years, the uncontrolled spread of the Cochineal, Dactylopius coccus (Cochinilla del Carmin) has led to the near disappearance of the prickly pear (higo chumbo) in Spain.

Historical Significance

The introduced prickly pear (Opuntia maxima), originating from Central America, has played a vital role for centuries. It served various purposes, including being a source of food (prickly pears, higo chumbos), livestock feed, agricultural support, slope stabilization, and hedges.

Cultural Impact and distribution in Spain
Lost Heritage: Cochineal and the Endangered Prickly Pear in Spain
Widely naturalized in the Mediterranean provinces of the Iberian Peninsula, sheltered areas in the interior of Andalusia, Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha, Arribes del Duero, the Balearic Islands, the Columbretes Islands, Tabarca Island, Ceuta, Melilla, the Canary Islands, and some very warm enclaves in Navarra and Aragón.

Historically, it has been a lifeline in arid regions of the southern and southeastern Iberian Peninsula, alleviating hunger. In the Canary Islands, it is cultivated for cochineal extraction, holding a designated origin certificate since 2016. Cochineal dye, a natural colorant (E-120) with carminic acid as its main component, finds applications in the food industry, cosmetics, pharmacy, and more. The color varies based on its interaction with acids, bases, or the formation of aluminum salts (carmine).

Historical Roots

Cochineal farming traces back to pre-Columbian times in Mexico, later exported to the Canary Islands and other compatible climates. Its economic importance was substantial, replacing or complementing other dyes in the market post the discovery of America.

Rise of Cochineal as a Plague

In Spain, however, cochineal has evolved into a plague. The aggressive strain, considered a wild species within the same genus, has strayed from the carefully selected strain used for centuries in dye production. It is suspected to have escaped its intended use as a biological control measure, leading to considerable controversy. Since 2009, the prickly pear has been on Spain’s official list of invasive species.

Cochineal - Dactylopius coccus - Cochinilla del Carmin
Cochineal – Dactylopius coccus – Cochinilla del Carmin – Detail of the degree of infestation of cochineal on a prickly pear
Controversy and Perspectives

While some see this infestation as a natural remedy to eradicate invasive exotic cactus species (similar to the situation with the agave weevil), others, myself included, argue that prickly pears have been an integral part of our landscape for centuries. We believe that, at the very least, the specific species (Opuntia maxima) and its variations can be preserved in locations where they have traditionally thrived and been cultivated.

Spider habitat

the Tent-Web Spider – Cyrtophora citricola – Araña orbitela de las chumberas

In Spain it was once very common to see their webs in prickly pears (Opuntia), where they often grouped together, ranging from a few individuals to colonial webs of several meters in length with many hundreds of spiders. The Spanish common name for this spider even uses the prickly pear, Chumbera!

Cyrthophora webs on prickly pear
Cyrthophora webs on prickly pear

However, in recent years and with the uncontrolled spread of the Cochineal – Dactylopius coccus – Cochinilla del Carmin the prickly pear habitat for this spider has all but been lost across the Iberian Peninsular. Read more about this lovely spider here: https://wildsideholidays.co.uk/tent-web-spider-cyrthophora-citricola-arana-orbitela-de-las-chumberas/

Some alternative titles for this article
  • The Cochineal Invasion: Unraveling the Prickly Pear’s Disappearance in Spain
  • Cochineal Plague: The Vanishing Act of the Prickly Pear in Spanish Landscapes
  • From Bounty to Blight: The Cochineal Crisis and Spain’s Prickly Pear
  • Cactus Catastrophe: Spain’s Battle Against the Cochineal Menace
  • Hues of Change: Cochineal and the Tragic Decline of Spain’s Prickly Pear
  • Cultural Icon to Invasive Threat: The Tragedy of Spain’s Prickly Pear
  • In the Shadows of Red: Spain’s Prickly Pear Faces Cochineal Devastation
  • Prickly Perils: Navigating the Cochineal Onslaught in Spain
  • Lost Heritage: Cochineal and the Endangered Prickly Pear in Spain
  • Invasive Reds: The Cochineal Dilemma and Spain’s Prickly Pear Plight
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2 thoughts on “Lost Heritage: Cochineal and the Endangered Prickly Pear in Spain”

  1. I think the article could be clearer if you explained that Dactylopius coccus* is an insect.
    Fun fact, the dwarf kermes oak (Quercus coccifera*) known locally as ‘coscoja,’ is the habitat of the kermes insect, another natural source of crimson dye ( from Arabic- qirmiz, qirmizī).
    *Coccum/ κόκκος ‘berry.’

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