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Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Monday - February 16, 2015

From: Sun City West, AZ
Region: Southwest
Topic: Poisonous Plants, Problem Plants, Cacti and Succulents
Title: Skin Reaction form Cochineal on Prickly Pear
Answered by: Mike Tomme

QUESTION:

I have severe burning and peeling skin on pads of fingers after touching "white stuff" on a prickly pear. White stuff tuned purple then burned skin even after washing hands. Skin has been cracking and bleeding for 2 months.

ANSWER:

Here is a previous Mr. Smarty Plants answer eplaining what that white stuff is. Briefly, there is a small insect inside that white stuff called cochineal. The red or purple juice you found has been used as a dye for hundreds of years. It is the dye used in garments worn by the popes and in the British redcoats. It is still used in cosmetics and as a food coloring, particularly in Europe. At one time it was Mexico's second largest export product behind silver.

But, you probably don't care that much about all that while your fingers are burning and bleeding.

A quick Google search for "skin allergy to cochineal" brought up a number of sites that describe allergic reactions to cochineal or red dye or carmine or carminic acid. Mr. Smarty Plants has never experienced the problems you describe so I really can"t offer any advice otherr than to recommend you visit a dermatologist.

 

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