Cochineal is a red dyestuff made from the bodies and eggs of a scale insect native to South America and in many ways similar to the Carmine dye of the Old World. The insects are harvested from the prickly-pear cactus on which they grow and crushed to extract the dye, which is then dried.
The dye gives a rich, deep red which was much valued prior to the development of synthetic chemical alternatives and which, unlike many strong dyes, is safe for use as a food colouring - a role in which it remains popular - and in cosmetics. Cochineal dye can also be used in histological staining for microscopy. Unlike carmine, cochineal is light-fast which made it more valuable and, whilst economically significant to the pre-Columbian civilisations it was also found to dye wool even better than it dyed indigenous fabrics making it yet more valuable to the colonists.
Unsuccessful attempts to introduce the cochineal insect to Australia were behind the first plantings of the prickly pear in that nation - where the cactus thrived but the insect did not. Conversely, cochineal farming in Ethiopia successfully used a similar native cactus but found the insect got out of hand and became a nuisance.
Game and Story Use
- Obviously, like most dyestuffs, the prepared dye makes useful trade goods and treasure.
- Characters making their way across a desert may stumble upon a grove of cacti infested with scale insect … unremarkable unless someone has the dying skill to identify the things. If correctly identified, the find may turn out to be extremely valuable indeed.
- Also, pirate PCs might intercept a Spanish ship carrying a keg or two of red powder rather than the silver they were hoping for - if they're not all that well educated and have killed the wrong people they might be genuinely mystified as to what they've captured (once they discover that it's not Cayenne pepper - the other red powder that might be hauled under similar conditions).
- In the modern era, the stuff is used as a food dye, potentially causing problems for anyone whose religion or health forbids consuming insects. A fantasy equivalent might have more unusual effects, limited to a small segment of the population.