Canary Island Cacti

The Mother-in-Law’s Cushion cactus, Echinocactus grusonii, grows to an immense size and would certainly make for an uncomfortable seat. © Jeffrey Cardenas

An irony of Canary Island cacti is that, despite being a ubiquitous part of this island’s landscape, not a single variety of cactus originated here. Nearly all of them came from the Americas. They are travelers, like me. They want to be here. When the Spaniards brought the plants to the Canaries from the New World, it was as if the cacti said to this scorched earth, “Where have you been all of my life?” The climate is perfect for Cactaceae. It is arid and windy with hot sun and cool night air, and the black volcanic soil is an ideal medium for a cactus. In addition to grapevines and date palms, cacti are nearly the only other natural thing on the island of Lanzarote colored green. And the cacti are not just green; they also show hues of red, purple, pink, and yellow. Volcanoes turned much of this island into shades of burned toast. The cacti arrived in a rainbow of color.

Cacti are sustainable visitors. They don’t consume resources (irrigation). They literally squeeze water from stone and then hold it during long periods of drought with brilliant biology that includes a wax-like skin layer and water-retaining cell membrane. And what use is a cactus, you ask? Aside from being a beautiful plant (see below), their fruit–the prickly pear–is a delicious and important food source in the Canary Islands. (You haven’t lived until you have eaten a freshly grilled red snapper on the beach served with prickly pear salsa.) More importantly, the Opuntia variety of cacti produces a commodity to Lanzarote that was once equal to the value of gold and silver. Inconceivably, it originated in the form of a wingless female parasite called cochineal.[1]

“…one of the most precious products to come out of the West Indies is the cochineal, a commodity equal to gold and silver.”

–King Felipe III, 1620

Like an aphid or mealybug, the cochineal insect buries its proboscis into the fleshy leaves of the prickly pear cactus and satiates itself on the plant’s moisture and nutrients. As the parasite grows, it absorbs a red pigment that, when processed, becomes carmine. Carmine dye was used by Aztecs and Mayans as early as the second century BC. Cities conquered by Montezuma in the 15th century paid their yearly tributes in bags of cochineal dye.[2] After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, cochineal was exported to Spain, and by the 17th century, it was a commodity traded around the world. Cochineal dye became Mexico’s second-most valued export after silver.[3] Dye pigments produced from the cochineal insect gave the Catholic cardinals their vibrant robes and the English “Redcoats” their distinctive uniforms. The dried bugs parts were so highly prized that cochineal was regularly quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges. Large-scale production of cochineal emerged, especially in Latin America and the Canary Islands.[4]

Mexican Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez, 1777 © Public Domain

Today, dry cochineal powder is currently selling online for as much as $500 per kilo. It takes about 80,000 to 100,000 insects to make one kilogram of cochineal dye, and the Canary Islands produces some 20 tons per year.[5] The carmine dye from Lanzarote’s plants and elsewhere is primarily used as a colorant in cosmetics and food. The water-soluble form of cochineal is included in the ingredients of a wide variety of products, including processed meats, ketchup, alcoholic drinks, juice beverages, candies, and dairy products. There was a brouhaha 10 years ago when customers discovered that Starbucks was using cochineal insect dye to make their Strawberry and Creme Frappuccino. After the inevitable headlines, Starbucks reconsidered its recipe and announced it no longer colors its coffee drinks with bugs.

I had my first taste of cactus at Lanzarote’s stunningly beautiful Jardín de Cactus in the northeastern village of Guatiza. The café there specializes in green prickly pear burgers (from locally-grown cactus) served in a carmine-red sesame seed bun with a glass of freshly-squeezed cactus juice. Yum! The Lanzarote Cactus Garden is a botanical wonderland in an abandoned picon (volcanic soil) mine at the heart of the island’s prickly pear plantations. The garden has over 4,500 specimens of cactus and other succulents, including 450 different species originating from five continents. The creation of Jardín de Cactus was the final inspiration of Lanzarote’s favorite son, environmental artist César Manrique, who died shortly after the garden was inaugurated. The garden and its integration of artistic creativity into the environment was an essential part of Lanzarote being named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1993.

The images below were made from the Jardín de Cactus and other locations on Lanzarote. For you botanists in the crowd, several photos show Euphorbaicea instead of Cactaceae (can you pick them out?) because, like many things in nature, these plants are too beautiful to be ignored.

Click on any thumbnail photo below to be directed to a carousel of high-resolution, full-frame images that include data and camera settings.

All images: © Jeffrey Cardenas

A layer of black volcanic sand provides protection from the sun for these cacti in the garden of the El Grifo winery on Lanzarote. © Jeffrey Cardenas


[1] Lanzarote Catus Garden, A Gardener’s Notes, Guillermo Benigno Perdomo Perdomo, 2018

[2] Timeline of Fabrics, Threads In Tyme, LTD, 2005

[3] The Bug that Changed History, J. Behan, 2006.

[4] A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire, Amy Butler Greenfield, 2005

[5] Canary Islands Cochineal Producers, 1998 and Tropical Commodities and their Markets, Foodnet, 2012

Special thanks: Antonio Manuel Martín Santos, Lanzarote Jardín de Cactus, for help with plant identification

Sailing is not just about the wind and the sea; equally important are the places where Flying Fish carries me, and the flora, fauna, and people I encounter along the way.

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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2021

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20 thoughts on “Canary Island Cacti

    • Hayden, thank you for reading the post and for responding.
      Somebody who reads my posts asked me recently, “Where’s all the sex, blood, and adventure of sailing?” I don’t know about blood, but these discoveries are all about adventure and, hey, even cacti can be sexy (i.e. check out the images of the Mammary Cactus and the Woody Torch).
      I am fascinated with what I see, and I love sharing it with readers like you.


    • Thank you for following the ramblings of a disorganized mind, Austin. The thing is, everything along the way has been so fascinating that I don’t know where to look next! I appreciate your comments. Onward!


  1. A lifetime ago I tried eating a prickly pear on Anastasia Island, “Blow Hole” to those that remember. It took a while to get the spines out of my tongue.

    Hoping to trace this part of your journey in the future. In the meantime, I am enjoying your previews, possibly almost as much as you are!

    Safe travels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That surf break at Blow Hole is the reason it took me 10 years to earn a four-year degree at the University of Florida. Luckily I never found the prickly pears there. In my constant state of “enthusiasm” I’d have swallowed one whole and then had spines embedded in a place far more delicate than my tongue.

      Sail on, sailor. I have no doubt you will make a landfall on these islands, too.


  2. Ah, the glorious cactus knows it’s way to my prickly heart.

    Even with my ‘mostly’ pescatarian diet, I do not think twice about consuming these little red beetles as I sip my Campari or Cappelletti. Alas, I tend to avoid Campari now unless it’s an import version from a country that still uses cochineal (E120 / natural red 4 / carmine etc) as I would rather have my bugs on the rocks than consume artificial red dye. The amateur entomologist in me will only turn a blind eye if a slice of fresh orange is placed on the rim of my glass.

    Thank you for taking us on a delightful journey through the Canary Islands, JC!


    Liked by 1 person

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