Prickly Pear (Opuntia ficus indica (L.) Mill.)
Because on the leaves of this tree, when it is well cultivated, some worms are born attached to it, which are covered by a kind of thin film; […] they are the famous Cochineal of the Indies, with which fine cloths are dyed.
Source: José Acosta (1590) - ‘Historia natural y moral de las Indias’
Among the Cactaceae, Opuntia is the most widely distributed and the most diverse genus, with approximately 75 American species. The prickly pear is the world’s most economically important species of Cactaceae. Archaeobotanical evidence indicates that the species was already in use 8000 years ago, with domestication starting in Mexico. It was taken to Spain at the beginning of the 16th century to support the breeding of the cochineal, an insect parasite of the Opuntia species, from which a much-appreciated red dye was extracted. From Spain the prickly pear expanded through the Mediterranean basin, and it subsequently spread to other parts of the world, thanks to sailors who took it as a food source to prevent scurvy in their long journeys. Today the prickly pear is distributed throughout the world.
Fruits are consumed fresh or in jams and the stems are used as a vegetable and as animal fodder. It is still cultivated to support cochineal breeding and also serves as a fence to mark agricultural properties.