In Australia the cactus plant is much maligned, its prickly spikes the scourge of graziers. Vast tracks of outback land have been overrun since its introduction in the 19th century as a natural agricultural fence material and to kick start a cochineal industry. As any trip into the bush will tell you the cactus took to Australia like those other imports the rabbit and the cane toad. In contrast, in Mexico, the cactus in its hundreds of varieties is a hero. In fact listening to a list of its uses gives the impression that the cactus was central to the rise of Mesoamerican culture.
A familiar cactus variety at Monte Alban pyramid site.
Apart from contributing a central symbol to the Mexican flag, the aforementioned agricultural fence, for which a column-like variety was used, and the cochineal extracted from the parasitic bug, the cactus’ uses were varied. It was a valued food source – try Googling salad and salsa recipes – and a central ingredient in building materials, glue, to strengthening mortar, stiffening cloth and very handy as firewood. It has a long list of medicinal uses: to heal wounds, cure abscesses, strengthen the lungs, purge intestinal parasites, increase maternal milk production, treat urinary problems and to improve cardiovascular and bowel health. Cactus needles were ideal for acupuncture. Our visit to the dyeing and weaving studio highlighted the uses of cactus in that process, including using cactus ash in the mixing of dyes and cochineal colouring.
The column cactus popular for agricultural fencing.
Edible cactus being deprickled in the Mexico City market.
The cactus also made a significant contribution to Mesoamerican ceremonial life, with many varieties having hallucinogenic qualities which were a central part of rituals and a source of revelation for their shamans. No doubt a contributor also to Mexican penchant for chaotic colour combinations. We were told that a number of 60s and 70s rock musicians, including Jim Morrison, Santana, and Pink Floyd, visited a revered female shaman ahead of composing memorable hits such as Riders on the Storm, Black Magic Woman and Dark Side of the Moon. And the peyote cactus is the source of the very popular local drink mescal, and mescalin, which has become one of the stock drugs fueling the current lethal drug cartel wars in Mexico.
Last but not least the argave cactus variety is the ingredient for tequila, the basic ingredient of one of Mexico’s best loved contributions to the world, the Margarita. If only our early settlers had made that connection maybe it would beaten the beer to being our favourite tipple.
Mescal tasting…and yes, those are fried cricket snacks!
Classic margarita. Yum!