They sailed by the ton
in the dim hulls of masted boats
whose cracks wet
rather than lit
the shells, the thoraxes.

If life lingered in the crush,
she who held it likely did not remember
her cactus, its pad drilled
by the white spume she’d spun,
Nopale not a word known to beetles,
who tend to speak in hums.

Nor could she predict
that she’d soon be a marker of
most high, cloaking
a cardinal–no matter that his sect forswore
the insides of female kind,

nor how she’d make him glow
more brightly than the eye
of best mother,
with her swallowed west,
with that sun that, like the dye, set in her.


Here’s a rather odd poem for Gillena Cox’s prompt on Real Toads about sailing.  This is about the cochineal beetle, a beetle native to the area around Oaxaca, Mexico, which is famous for the rich red dye made from the shell and body of the females.  Soon after the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, the beetle was imported into Europe by the ton and used as a red dye, particularly effective in fabrics made with animal rather than vegetable matter, i.e. wool over cotton, and the dye was used particularly for the rich red robes of cardinals and many Church officials.  The beetle’s dye is still used today for rugs and many cosmetics and beverages.  It is a strong red that can be modified based upon natural additives and preparation techniques.  Above are pictures of the beetle whole and then crushed in somone’s hand and with a stone;  it grows on the Nopale cactus, shown below.

(Poem supposed to be under 100 words–I think I’m a little above–cut some, but sorry Gillena!) 


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8 Comments on “Cochineal”

  1. gillena Says:

    Thanks for your response. Its quite a telling piece.
    At Chaguanas where i grew up, we had that cactus in our back yard. My mother used it in shampooing her hair. The cactus was called Rachett and it was also called cochineal.

    Much love…

  2. I have visited the Canary Islands many times, and it’s now covered with cactus because they needed more cochineal that could be shipped… amazing history..

  3. Rosemary Nissen-Wade Says:

    So that’s what cochineal is! I always thought it was some kind of plant substance. Interesting poem.

  4. Brendan Says:

    Treasure–or booty–in that female beetle’s “swallowed West”–stained red with one species’ rapine of another’s. We take it as ornament. What is translated gestating in the hold of a ship for passing months. Well done.

  5. Kerry O'Connor Says:

    A post full of history and herstory. I had no idea the beetles were so small.. lots of dead creatures to colour our world.

  6. Fascinating. Thank you so much for this informative and well written piece.

  7. What a rich experience reading this poem and your info afterwards was — the Nopale cactus looks like a mirror of the one I saw last month on Catalina Island in southern California. I wonder it is indeed the same? To my Midwestern girl eyes these plants are exotic and wondrous, like the cochineal! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Sherry Marr Says:

    This was so interesting to read, both poem and your notes. Very enjoyable.

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