Diane Foray, docent for the Tucson Museum of Art, provided a fascinating lesson in the history of the color red at the January meeting of The Women of Quail Creek. Originally a symbol of power and wealth, red was prized by royalty and religious leaders. It was scarce because the process used to dye fabric red was very dangerous.
When the Spanish began to colonize what is now Mexico, they found that red was a prominent color in the society and was used frequently. This led to the discovery that this red originated from an insect, the Cochineal that lives on the prickly pear cactus. The cochineal was particularly prominent in the area of Oaxaca. Cochineal became a favored product to send back to Europe for use in both fabric dye and paint. Many of the reds we see in popular, classic works or art originated from this cochineal dye; however, after many years of popularity, the creation of synthetic dyes made the production of red from Cochineal less likely.
If you have ever noticed the white substance on your prickly pear cactus you are actually looking at Cochineal insects. Unfortunately, it would take 70,000 insects to make one pound of red dye so it is not likely you will be making your own fabric dyes from the cactus in your yard.