The Red to Dye For

The Red to Dye For



A recent post by Grana B&B in Mexico peeked my interest. It featured a prickly pear wall display =  beautifyl focal point at the end of one of the Bed and Breakfast's outdoor cloister corridors.

Bucket list B&B found! And a reminder to find out more about the prickly international goings of the Cochinella plant.

I had heard a few months earlier, probably on an episode of Gardening Australia that the prickly pear took over much of the landscape in Eastern Australia by the mid 20th century.

The Pickly Pear Trade War

I do love a historical trade war story. Bitcoin, bonds and shares just don't do it for me. Give me salt, sugar, spices, rum, tea, prickly pears. So much more interesting.


A Dye Industry to Die For

It turns out the first prickly pear plants were brought into Australia to start a cochineal dye industry? At that time, Spain had a worldwide monopoly on the important cochineal dye industry and the British Government was keen to set up its own source of supply within the colony.

In those early days, the red dye derived from cochineal insects, yes insects, were very valuable to the world’s exclusive clothing and garment trade.

even make their own Grana Cochinilla, or Cochineal red dye, with the Dactylopius Coccus variety

🌵 + 🐞 = 👚


The expensive, red colour denoted wealth, royalty and power. It was, for example, the dye used at that time to colour the British soldiers’ red coats.

Captain Arthur Phillip’s “First Fleet” supplies included a collection of COCHINEAL-INFESTED prickly pear plants from Brazil and other places on his way to establish the first white settlement at Botany Bay in 1788.

⛵⛵⛵+🌵🌵 + 🐞

A Weed Never Weeded Out

But by 1920, despite the 1886 Prickly-pear Destruction Act of New South Wales, the prickly pear was completely out of control, infesting some 60 million acres of land in New South Wales and Queensland. It was estimated at the time that the pear was spreading at the rate of one million acres per year!

"CRIKEY, LET'S BRING IN MORE RABBITS TO EAT THE BASTARDS!!!!", one very smart man did say when a 5,000 pound reward was offered to anyone who could find a reasonable solution to the infestation.


No wonder prickly pear is in our history books as one of the most invasive weeds ever imported into Australia!

Despite knowing their history and the fact that they are still a right pest in places like Esperance, Western Australia, it's hard not to admire these cacti.

A Perfect Red

Check out Amy Butler Greenfield's book "A Perfect Red", Winner of the 2006 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction.

A Perfect Red recounts the colorful history of cochineal, a legendary red dye that was once one of the world's most precious commodities. Treasured by the ancient Mexicans, cochineal was sold in the great Aztec marketplaces, where it attracted the attention of the Spanish conquistadors in 1519.

Shipped to Europe, the dye created a sensation, producing the brightest, strongest red the world had ever seen. Soon Spain's cochineal monopoly was worth a fortune.

Desperate to find their own sources of the elusive dye, the English, French, Dutch, and other Europeans tried to crack the enigma of cochineal. Did it come from a worm, a berry, a seed? Could it be stolen from Mexico and transplanted to their own colonies? Pirates, explorers, alchemists, scientists, and spies—all joined the chase for cochineal, a chase that lasted more than three centuries. 

A Perfect Red tells their stories—true-life tales of mystery, empire, and adventure, in pursuit of the most desirable color on earth.

A Perfect Red can be purchased through Booktopia here or by scanning the QR Code below


Amy Butler Greenfield A Perfect Red QR Code Purchase on Booktopia

some words borrowed from_@LesTannerBingara - North West Weeds, Australia
📷 _camilacossio

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