Nopal – Legend, Food, and Natural Dye

20 Jul


Nopal Cactus/Nopal

The nopal cactus grows widely in Mexico. The national flag shows an eagle entangled with a serpent, standing on a nopal. Legend says that when Mexica (Aztec) nomads saw this eagle at a lake in central Mexico, they know that they should settle at that spot. Their settlement grew into the great city of Tenochtitlán.

Nopal is an important part of the Mexican diet, rich in vitamins. When the spines are scraped off, the “leaves” can be cooked and used in a variety of dishes. The fruit, called “tunas,” have a sweet taste and can be bought in Mexican markets. Nopal “leaves” are actually enlarged stems. The real leaves evolved into the spines.



In colonial times, the greatest wealth in Oaxaca came not from gold or silver, but from the cochineal, a tiny insect that lives on nopal leaves. Indigenous Oaxacans knew how to extract a red dye from cochineal, more brilliant than any before seen in Europe. The dye created vast riches and was used to dye garments of the upper classes and royalty in Europe. The cochineal boom ended only when German chemists developed cheaper aniline dyes in the 1800s. Today, Zapotec weavers in Teotitlan del Valle raise cochineal to use as one of the natural dyes in their world famous hand-woven rugs.


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