Tag Archives: chocolate

Tales From The Ranch: more Opuntia tales

Opuntia with fruit

Most people visiting the deserts of the American Southwest are slightly surprised whenever they see any of the Opuntia cacti commonly called “prickly pear”. “Where’s the pear?”, they ask, especially if they visit in the winter or spring. Well, that’s because the fruit hasn’t developed yet. Like most fruits, they let you and everything else know that they’re ripe and ready, and the season for prickly pear fruit generally runs between the beginning of October to the end of the year. The season generally isn’t determined by whether the fruit goes bad, but whether or not it’s still on the plant, because it’s quite popular.

Opuntia fruit

Among other folks, prickly pear fruit is very popular among humans, and has been a staple in this area pretty much since humans first arrived in the Americas. Most popular guidebooks on cactus make a big deal about how the fruit is used for candy, jams, jellies, and the like, so a lot of tourists and new residents risk getting poked by spines and snagged by insect pests to grab a fruit or two. Without fail, they’re disappointed at the very subtle and mild taste, compared to what the brilliant purple coloration promises. They’re also disappointed by the number and consistency of the seeds, which have all of the thrill of sucking on aquarium gravel. (Do NOT ask me know I know this, because you won’t like the answer.) Even so, once you get used to the taste, you can understand why this is one of the two main commercially raised cactus fruits, with the other being dragonfruit cactus.

(The trick to eating prickly pear, by the way, is to slice them in halves or quarters and toast the cut surfaces slightly, because it carmelizes the sugars in the juice and really brings out the flavor. Prickly pear may never replace pomegranates, but they have their charms. As for the jams and jellies, just be prepared to boil it down a lot to concentrate those sugars. I’ve found that dropping the whole fruit, by the kilo, into a smoothie machine and draining off the juice is the fastest and most practical way to get enough juice to be worth your time.)

Opuntia fruit leftovers

Well, the seeds are as voluminous and as tough as they appear, but they have to be. In the wild, they’re a major autumn food source for a lot of local animals, including coyotes, foxes (red and grey), raccoons, opossums, peccaries, feral pigs, skunks, the occasional mockingbird wanting a taste treat, and cattle. The only thing more common this time of the year than prickly pear skins along clumps of Opuntia are the seed-filled scat of some critter that had a hearty meal a few days before. Since the seed coatings are as tough as they are, that predigestion seems to encourage their germination in spring, which is one of the reasons why prickly pear takes over most cattle land in West Texas. The other reason is that the rest of the plant is so unappetizing, both in flavor and in general inedibility (both from spines and toughness), that even goats won’t eat the cactus unless faced with starvation. The stories about ranchers burning the spines of prickly pear to feed cattle during drought? They’re true, but at that point, the cattle would eat plastic garbage bags first if given a choice. (Again, do NOT ask me how I know this.)

Cocineal bugs on Opuntia

This time of the year is also a great opportunity to see another bit of Opuntia natural history, tied to human history. In the autumn, many Opuntia pads have big clusters of white fluff on them, and many just assume that this is some odd mold. The more adventurous will scrape away the “mold” and find a small insect inside. Squish the bug, and it lets loose a disturbing amount of bright red juice, and every clump of “mold” has at least one bug underneath it.

Cocineal bugs on Opuntia

The bug in question is Dactylopius coccinus, and that red juice is commonly known as carmine or cochineal. Today, these scale insects are gathered, dried and processed as food colorings, among other things, but their value as an intense dye stretches back centuries.

And now a quick digression into a discussion on exotic invasives, and why Australia used to be rotten with prickly pear. When the Spanish conquered most of the Americas, they rapidly discovered the value of cochineal dye, and before long, it was as valuable an export to Europe as chocolate or vanilla. It was added to fat to make carmine, sure, but its real value was as a stable and intense cloth dye, and the famed red coats of the British Army used cochineal dye to give that eye-popping color.

Anyone looking on the Spanish occupation of the Americas notes that the Spanish weren’t just good at recognizing markets for American products, but at keeping a tight grip on intellectual property. While Spanish traders had no problems selling chocolate throughout Europe, for instance, in no way were they willing to give out any secrets about the trees that grew xocolatl or their care. (To give an example, while Spanish explorers and administrators had extensive experience with the common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, throughout Central and South America, they managed to keep that knowledge under control for over 300 years, and stories of bats that drank blood only started seeping into Europe about the time Bram Stoker was writing Dracula.) So long as the Spanish were a major force in the Americas, only they and their allies were allowed access to the scientific wealth of the new territories, and English, Dutch, or French explorers were driven off with extreme prejudice.

Well, that would have worked if Mexico, the center of cochineal production through the Eighteenth Century, hadn’t fought and won its war of independence, because that gave plenty of opportunities for explorers to learn secrets previously open only to the Spanish. (And when I say “Mexico”, remember that a big stretch of what is now United States territory, particularly a place you’ve never heard of called “Texas”, was Mexican territory at the time.) The secret of cochineal production got out, and now all anyone needed to do was establish a population of cochineal bugs and their necessary food.

Hence, while prickly pear was introduced with poor success to many areas, the botanist Sir Joseph Banks put bugs in ears (pun intended) about establishing a cochineal industry in Australia. It would have worked, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling chemists developing artificial dyes through the Nineteenth Century, and the market for cochineal collapsed almost literally overnight. The cactus survived, though, and rapidly took over the continent. Now under relative control, various Opuntia species still thrive in Australia, for the same reasons they do so incredibly well in the Americas. Namely, the individual pads sprout into new plants if given half a chance, and the seeds are spread by wildlife glad for the fruit bounty.

In this case, I don’t think the ranch is going to become a hub for cochineal production, no matter its value as a food and cosmetics colorant. Instead, I’m looking forward to pointing it out to my nieces and relate “Hey, if you want, I can make you your own lipstick while you wait. Let me get some beef tallow and a few bugs.” At that point, the responsibility of smacking me in the head while yelling “What the hell is WRONG with you?” will move to a new generation.

The Drooling Sundew

Contrary to the opinion of random passersby who want to come by at all hours “to look at the plants,” the Triffid Ranch isn’t a full-time operation. Oh, it’s a full-time operation, but it’s not the only jobs we hold. Especially during the winter, when all of the temperate carnivores are dormant and the tropical carnivores are resting, having a standard day job like everyone else is a necessity. Among other things, the day job provides health insurance, a steady background income, and a surplus of scintillant conversation from my co-workers. And no, I’m not exaggerating, because I work with a crew of truly unique talents, and we literally have no idea how much our mutual experiences can benefit the other. Ask the engineers circling the coffee machine about their weekends, and the responses sound more like plotlines to a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else.

Anyway, compared to the professional musicians, semi-pro glassworkers, and enthusiastic amateur knifesmiths on board, my passion for carnivorous plants marks me as one of the Quiet Ones, and not the oddball in the back corner of the office who isn’t trying to drink himself to death every night. (And yes, I’ve worked in that sort of office. Remind me to tell you about my days working at Sprint one time.) Every once in a great while, though, I can fend for myself, and sometimes even bring something to the lunch discussions that leads to a good bout of Head Explodey.

By way of example, I recently brought a Cape sundew (Drosera capensis) to its current space in my cubicle, mostly because it was a needed touch of green next to a window full of brown. No, let’s be honest: BROWN. Even before the current freezing nights hit, everything was a uniform blasted tan out the office window from the drought, and it was about as pathetic and depressing as a Firefly marathon on SyFy. Indoors, under a good stout 23-watt compact fluorescent bulb in a desk lamp, that sundew promptly perked up and started throwing off new leaves, and I fully expect for it to demand full rights from the UN by spring.

That little sprig of green got more than a few questions from co-workers and project managers, and the first question was “When are you going to feed it?” Since I knew that they’d be less than thrilled by my bringing in a tube of wingless fruit flies, I decided to demonstrate the one commonality between carnivorous plant and human: an appreciation for chocolate.

In his classic volume Insectivorous Plants, Charles Darwin understandably went a little crazy in his enthusiasm over Drosera of all sorts. This book details most of his experiments in understanding sundew mechanics and responses, and he discovered that sundews respond to two different stimuli in different ways. Firstly, the long sticky hairs (officially called “tentacles”) were sensory hairs in that they picked up the movement of prey caught in their glue, and consistent movement of one tentacle caused others in its vicinity to converge on the area, further trapping that prey. Secondly, specialized glands at the tip of each tentacle could ascertain the relative nitrogen content of the item trapped. If the stimulus was something relatively non-nitrogenous, such as a grass stem rubbing against the sundew’s leaf, the tentacles might respond, but the plant wouldn’t try to digest the intrusion. If the stimulus was high in available nitrogen but unmoving, such as a dead bug landing on the leaf, the tentacles wouldn’t respond right away, but they’d ultimately detect the morsel and move to claim it. And chocolate? It’s sufficiently nitrogenous that a sundew might mistake small pieces for gnats or other tiny insects, but without rotting or growing mold while digestion took place.

One of the reasons why D. capensis is perfect for this demonstration is that it’s one sundew that’s singularly enthusiastic in its feeding response. It doesn’t close on prey as quickly as some Drosera species, but its entire trapping surface wraps around prey, sometimes completely surrounding it. Even better, D. capensis‘s output of digestive enzymes is not just visible to the naked eye, but it’s voluminous. Put a mosquito on a Cape sundew leaf, and you get more puddling drool than a doorbell in the Pavlov house.

Anyway, since one of my favorite co-workers asked to see sundew trapping behavior, I pulled some leftover dark chocolate Halloween candy from the department stash (since it’s in a Halloween cardboard display, it’s referred to as “the candy coffin”), scraped off some crumbs, and sprinkled them on the sundew’s leaves. She was a bit disappointed by the immediate response, as she expected something more energetic. “Patience,” I said, “you have to give it some time. If that chocolate was moving, we’d see much faster movement, but it’s still not something you can see in a few seconds.” We left it alone and continued through the day, checking back every once in a while to verify the chocolate’s status.

This morning, my friend came in shortly after I did, and immediately visited the sundew. That’s when she viewed this.

Drooling Cape sundew (Drosera capensis)

Another reason why Cape sundews are great subjects to demonstrate active trapping behavior is that they’re extremely active compared to many other good beginner’s sundews. Note the several folded leaves, where the trapping surface actually folded in half to surround the chocolate. Even better, notice the one on the right that’s curled like a fern fiddleback? That one caught a chocolate crumb near its tip, and the shine down the leaf is digestive fluid. Yes, like most people, Cape sundews drool like fiends when given chocolate.

And now the obligatory disclaimer: I do NOT advocate feeding Cape sundews chocolate on a regular basis, and I definitely don’t recommend it at all for most sundew species. Don’t even think of doing it for most other carnivores. More importantly, as with people, the best results with sundews come from reasonably fresh dark chocolate, so spare the poor plant that dried-up Hershey’s bar that’s been in your desk since 1998. Absolutely importantly, keep the feeding to crumbs: your plant and your co-workers will hate you if you drop a whole Godiva’s truffle in the sundew’s container. As for everything else, anyone have any high school-age kids who want a science fair experiment on sundew sensitivity to different varieties and brands of chocolate?