Our love-hate relationship with cactus

A cactus is vandalized in Laguna Beach in December.
A cactus is vandalized in Laguna Beach in December. Special to The Bee

Recently as I drove past a particularly tall and graceful prickly-pear cactus patch that has sentineled the top of my street for decades, it seemed to be drooping down into the road. The next morning, the cause was revealed: Its main stem had been hacked and severed.

There’s something about cactus that sets off certain people. A few years ago, a man who was eventually caught took a machete to cactus after cactus in the two wilderness parks near where I live in Orange County. On my most recent hike along a ridge line, the bigger stands of cactus had been whacked to the ground. No other plants, just the cactuses.

Few people give much thought to prickly pear, except for those who hack it and those, like me, who love it.

Often messy-looking, common as dirt, with little hairs around the spines that get under your skin and irritate you for what feels like a lifetime, they’re easy to ignore on a hike or a drive, except for those late-spring weeks when their lush peach-to-lemon colored flowers bloom.

But prickly pear tells such stories!

It was so useful to local Native Americans that it appears to have been the one plant these hunter-foragers cultivated near their villages. The split pads were laid on wounds and burns as a poultice, the fruits eaten and their seeds ground into meal. The spines became sewing needles. In later years, the sticky innards were used to make an adhesive and a type of chewing gum. There’s evidence that the pads, or nopales, (which are still eaten today as well as the fruit, or tunas) might be useful in the treatment of diabetes and high cholesterol.

Entire books have been written about the bugs that live under the cottony white spots that appear on many prickly-pear stands; it’s a parasitic insect known as the cochineal bug, which contains a brilliant, colorfast red liquid that stains fabric easily. When the first Spaniards in the Americas found native people wearing intensely colored red clothing – Europe relied on dull, earthen dyes that faded quickly – they knew they’d stumbled on something as good as the gold they sought.

During its heyday, cochineal rivaled silver for per-ounce price, and was used for royal robes and the British “redcoats.” It became briefly famous a couple of years ago when vegetarians objected to Starbucks Frappuccinos being colored with dead bugs; the company reformulated. It’s listed as an ingredient in food and lipsticks as “carmine coloring.”

Who could blindly attack a plant with such a grand history? Only, I imagine, someone fearful and angry who sees monsters in innocent and helpful living things, someone who sees only the spines and none of the benefits and who never stops long enough to hear the stories.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at