Cactus Moth Threatens Mexico's Nopal Crops

The female cactus moth lays egg sticks like this one with up to 120 eggs inside. i i

An unborn threat: The female cactus moth lays egg sticks like this one with up to 120 eggs inside. Once hatched, the larvae embed themselves in the leaves and eat their way through, leaving a pulpy mess in their wake. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR
The female cactus moth lays egg sticks like this one with up to 120 eggs inside.

An unborn threat: The female cactus moth lays egg sticks like this one with up to 120 eggs inside. Once hatched, the larvae embed themselves in the leaves and eat their way through, leaving a pulpy mess in their wake.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR
Workers cut down diseased nopal plants on Isla Mujeres to try and stop the spread of the moth

Workers cut down diseased nopal plants on Isla Mujeres to try and stop the spread of the moth to the mainland, just six miles across the ocean. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR
In the town of Milpa Alta near Mexico City, Abrahm Avila tramps through his nopal field.

In the town of Milpa Alta near Mexico City, Abrahm Avila tramps through his nopal field. The cactus moth threatens thousands of jobs and a national delicacy. Luisa Ortiz, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Luisa Ortiz, NPR

The nopal, also known as the prickly pear cactus, is more than just another succulent in the desert landscape of Mexico and the U.S. Southwest — it's also a significant food source. Now an invasive moth is threatening many of Mexico's cactus species, including the nopal.

The cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, a native of South America, has already infested many Caribbean islands and the southern United States. Now the pest has a foothold on the vacation hotspot of Isla Mujeres, a small island surrounded by sparkling aquamarine waters off the coast of Cancun.

The larvae of the moth are very efficient at eating cactus — so efficient, in fact, that a memorial was dedicated to the moth in Australia, where it was successfully introduced to control wild cactus populations.

But in Mexico, the pest is a time bomb that threatens to destroy a lucrative food crop in Mexico. The government is responding by destroying infected crops and laying out traps to catch egg-laying females.

The moth may have arrived on Isla Mujeres last year, blown in from the Caribbean on the winds of one of the hurricanes that swept through the region. Mainland Mexico is just six miles across the water, where scientists say the moth could easily gain a quick foothold and spread rapidly.

That would be a disaster for the thousands who find work cultivating nopal in Mexico. It would also be a cultural blow — the cactus has a revered place in Mexican culture and folklore.

As the story goes, the once-nomadic Aztecs were searching for a place to settle. Their shamans prophesied that the tribe would know the spot when they spotted an eagle, perched on a prickly pear cactus, with a snake in its mouth.

The spot where legend says the Aztecs spotted their eagle is now Mexico City, and the image from prophecy is now emblazoned on the national flag. But more than just a symbol, the nopal is eaten everywhere in Mexico, and is a key part of traditional Mexican cuisine.

Nopal Salad

Pujol restaurant owner Enrique Olvera prepares his own take on the traditional Mexican cactus salad.

Pujol restaurant owner Enrique Olvera prepares his own take on the traditional Mexican cactus salad. Luisa Ortiz, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Luisa Ortiz, NPR

Enrique Olvera owns the restaurant Pujol in Mexico City, which serves modern Mexican food with traditional ingredients. Here he shares his recipe for nopal salad:

Makes 4 servings

12 small nopal cactus leaves

1 plum tomato

1/2 cup queso fresco (Mexican-style cheese)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 teaspoon chopped white onion

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon oregano

1/2 pint oregano-olive oil ice cream

1/2 cup corn meal (masa harina)

salt and pepper

Add the plum tomatoes to boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove and shock in iced water. Remove skin and seeds. Chop in small dice.

Toast the corn meal over medium heat until aromatic and golden color. Season with salt.

Blanch the nopal leaves in plenty of salted boiling water until they turn from bright green to dark green. Remove and cool to room temperature. Pat dry with paper towels and slice into cubes.

Mix the nopal, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, olive oil, cheese and lime juice. Mix slowly without agitating too much. Check seasoning.

Serve mixture in a deep salad bowl with the oregano ice cream on top and some toasted corn meal on the rim of the bowl.

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