Amaranth & Prickly Pear

Keg de Souza and Mariana Martínez Balvanera’s research engages with plants that are entangled in and shaped by colonial disruptions. Mariana follows ‘Quelites’ as wild and cultivated plants that originated Mexico and are now found all over the world, while Keg researches the prickly pear or ‘nopal’ that were displaced from Mexico by colonial vegetal economies and were co-opted as biological forms of enclosure in their new territories.

Mariana Martínez Balvanera, Amaranth

Amaranth, one of the oldest American domesticated plants, captivated my interest when I worked in Oaxaca and Xochimilco’s ancient milpas. Amaranth is part of a group of wild and domesticated plants known in Mexico as Quelites. Even though they used to be a dominant crop for the indigenous people (alongside corn), during colonial times the settler Spaniards banned Amaranth (Huauhtli) after witnessing Aztec rituals involving Amaranth sculptures used in goddess Huitzilopochtli’s veneration. The ban stemmed from Amaranth’s association with rituals, nutrition and sovereignty, and its status as a “weed” rather than an edible and spiritual crop in the newly colonized country. 

Quelites (edible wild greens) grow within and around the milpa and are used in different Mexican recipes like tamales and soups, recipes that I have learned from traditional cooks and close relatives. Quelite Cenizo, Quintonil, Huauzontle, Quelite Gigante are all wild greens that are related to Amaranth (Amaranthae family) by their genus Chenopodium. Some of these plants can also be found growing  in plots and sidewalks of cities outside of Mexico. They are plants that grow almost anywhere in the world. These resilient, ubiquitous plants that grow in diverse locations, symbolize rebellion and dispersion. I have found in them a nostalgic link to my culture when I spot them abroad, and this is the reason why I chose to research the entangled meanings and pasts of these spiritual rebel plants.

Keg de Souza, Prickly Pear 

I have been researching the colonial entanglements of Australia (where I live as a settler) and India (my ancestral lands) through the movement of particular plants. One such plant is the prickly pear, native to the Americas, it was sent out by the British to the colonial outposts of Australia and India to create a habitat for the cochineal insect. When crushed, cochineal insects create a deep red dye, at the time it was used to colour the robes of royalty, cardinals and the British military redcoats:  to mask the colour of blood. 

In Australia, the prickly pear was also used as an agricultural fence to divide up stolen land. It thrived in drought-tolerant conditions, displaced native species, and soon covered an area larger than the size of the UK only a few decades after its introduction. After this long invasive and uncontrollable battle with the cactus this “green hell’ was finally controlled with another introduced species, the Cactoblastis cactorum moth. At the same time in India, the East India Company’s cochineal ventures were a different series of missteps and mishaps: from years of failed attempts to get cochineal insects across the sea to the subcontinent, to eventually introducing the wrong species of the insect and producing a lesser quality dye there was no market for, by which time synthetic dyes had also been invented. Their attempts in both locations were a spectacular failure, yetleft lasting impacts on the land and landscape.