Prickly Pear - More Drama Than Reality TV
By Sarah Villafranco, MD
Posted in Blog, on September 03, 2014
Their flat, fleshy pads spread along the dry ground. Beautiful in their dusky shades of green and purple, they tempt with their occasional flowers and succulent cores - woe to the overcurious hand that makes the spiny mistake. Like watchful, old women with curlers in their hair, the prickly pears huddle together, tough-skinned and thorny, unwilling to divulge their secrets. But, oh, what stories they might tell.
While developing our recently launched Luz Facial Brightening Serum, rich in the divinely smooth oil of the prickly pear, we journeyed back in time to learn about this succulent plant (of the genus Opuntia), and its dramatic history.
One legend tells of a great cactus that grew from the heart of an Aztec warrior named Copil. His mother, a forceful woman with powers that threatened their leader, was cast out of her nomadic tribe. Furious, she sent Copil to make trouble for the tribe. Copil, poor feller, ended up with his heart torn out and cast into Lake Texcoco.
Time passed, battles raged, and the heart of Copil remained at the bottom of the lake. The tribal priests, having waited patiently for a sign to tell them where the nomads should make their home, finally received a vision from their god. He told them that a prickly pear cactus seed had taken root in Copil’s heart and that they should return to Lake Texcoco to find it. When they returned, they came upon an enormous prickly pear cactus, on top of which was perched a great eagle with wide spread wings and a snake in its mouth. Because there was no way to interpret the image other than a sign from God (it doesn’t get much clearer than the eagle-and-the-snake-on-a-giant-cactus thing), the wandering Aztec tribe finally settled, and built the town called Tenochtitlan. Today, the ruins of this once teeming metropolis are located in the central part of Mexico City, currently the world’s third largest city. And, in honor of the prickly pear seed that gave rise to it all, the Mexican Coat of Arms still comprises the eagle, the snake, and – of course – the prickly pear that was Copil’s heart.
In 1788, and half a world away in Australia, the prickly pear made history again. Captain Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales, imported the prickly pear from Brazil. He did so because of a bug. Yep, a tiny little insect that lives on prickly pear cacti, which, when crushed, can be used make cochineal dye – the very dye used to color British soldiers’ rich, red coats. The captain, in his entrepreneurial genius, found Brazilian prickly pear plants infested with these little bugs, and brought them to Sydney, thinking Australia would become the next great exporter of cochineal dye. Unfortunately, the Brazilian bugs didn’t like it Down Under, and his plan, like the bugs, died. The prickly pear, however, became a pest of its own. By the late 1800s, it had overtaken 100,000 square miles of Eastern Australia. For more than 40 years, Queensland and New South Wales were in biological crisis – many farmers forced off their lands, millions of acres rendered uninhabitable by the spiny invader. Then, in one of the greatest biological weed control cases in history, a South American caterpillar called Cactoblastis (I hope you are picturing a caterpillar wearing mirrored sunglasses, a tiny cape, and a metal chest shield, because I sure am) was imported and had the prickly pear population under control within six years. CactoBLASTIS, baby! Doesn’t Mother Nature just blow your mind sometimes??
These days, luckily, the story of the prickly pear cactus is a much happier one. It’s a staple on the Latin American table – the inexpensive, fiber-rich leaves find their way into tacos and salads and bean dishes (think okra - not super flavorful, and a wee slimy). It is being researched for medical uses, with possible efficacy in helping control blood sugar, cholesterol, and maybe even preventing hangovers! (The deep-purple juice is pretty trendy in craft cocktails these days – talk about killing two birds with one margarita!) And the rich, velvety oil from the prickly pear seed has taken on a new purpose in the green beauty community – keeping all you green beauties gorgeous!
Cold pressed prickly pear seed oil, as used in our Luz Facial Brightening Serum, is processed by pressing and grinding the cactus seeds—usually with a stainless steel press— in order to extract the nourishing oil. Like many valuable oils, the sheer quantity of seeds needed for even a teaspoon of the precious oil is astounding. (Think thousands - feel special, yet?) No solvents are used, so the oil retains all its skin-enhancing nutrients. The prickly seed oil is light yellow in color, and is quick to absorb, leaving your skin velvety soft. (I can attest to this because when I caught Monika, our Production Manager, reading over my shoulder as I wrote this piece, she hauled me into the cooling closet to try the oil for myself. Even now, hours later, my right hand glows softly, compared with my left.) Packed with natural tocopherols (Vitamin E), this oil is a potent antioxidant that helps improve skin elasticity and retain moisture. With a high percentage of unsaturated fatty acids, specifically omega-6, prickly pear seed oil proves powerful in keeping skin hydrated, plump, and younger looking. Forget Prince Charming - this is the real love story.
Used in our Luz brightening serum, the prickly seed oil combines beautifully with argan, camellia, and broccoli seed oils, and is enhanced by an array of both botanical actives and gluten-free proteins. This ensemble of powerhouse ingredients brings the serum to life, allowing you to glow like Cinderella after the ball – quite a journey from the spiny, 5-foot tall prickly pear cactus that looks like your Grandma Ethel at bedtime. Try a sample of Luz, and see if this elixir, rich with complicated history, will help your skin show less of its own past. And, remember to ask for the stories behind the products used on your skin, the food on your table, and the clothes on your back – it makes you an informed consumer, more capable of making smart decisions for you and your family.
Got any prickly pear stories to tell? (Like the one where my boss sat on one while having a temper tantrum during a mountain biking expedition?) Please – share!