Creation 10(3):40–42, June 1988
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The curse and the cure
Cactus plants cut down by insects
In 1923, State Government authorities in New South Wales and Queensland, Australia, were deeply concerned about the spread of a particularly vicious cactus plant. A Royal Commission appointed 11 years earlier had drawn attention to the serious spread of the species—known as Tiger Pear—and urged that steps be taken to prevent its spreading further.
By the early 1920s many thousands of hectares of valuable grazing land had become cactus-infested in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. This cactus was being carried along the Macintyre, Moonie and Weir River systems. The curse of the plant, said graziers, was the long barbed spines on the joints which so easily fastened on to sheep and cattle. Animals rubbed them off on tree trunks and fence posts and so distributed them widely.
Tiger Pear (Opuntia aurantiaca) is native to the Montevideo area in Uruguay, but it has been transplanted to various localities in the province of Entre Rios in Argentina. It is believed to have been introduced to Australia in the late 1800s as a pot plant, as were most of the 29 species of cacti that became pests in this country. The rapid spread of these plants to serious pest proportions is almost beyond comprehension.
Out of control
Graziers set out to plough and dig out the plants. Numerous chemical compounds were mixed to find one which might effectively eradicate the pest. At great cost, gangs of men walking six to twelve abreast atomised the cactus with a dangerous mixture containing sulphuric acid. But the plant could not be contained—it maintained its intolerable grip.
In an attempt at entomological control, several insect species were introduced and tried to no avail. Then a cochineal, or coccid, insect was found in central and western Argentina feeding on a related low-growing large-jointed cactus [O. sulphurea]. This coccid insect, Dactylopius austrinus, was imported to Queensland in 1932 and bred in large quantities. It readily transferred to the Tiger Pear.
The insect brought about spectacular destruction of the Tiger Pear over thousands of hectares of dense infestations in both Queensland and New South Wales. The natural spread of the insect in the field was slow, but where landholders assisted the dispersal by moving pieces of plants laden with cochineal to non-affected plants, the control was very much more effective.
The crushed bodies of cochineal insects have provided the scarlet dye of commerce. The insect itself was small, and was covered with fine, white, woolly matted hair called tomentum. Once it fixed itself to the plant it could not move, so there it stayed until it died. Eggs were laid which hatched in a few hours into small ‘crawlers’; from these there was a slow natural distribution.
Not harmful to man
Unlike many families of insects, coccids are not generally harmful to man. They do not infest us, nor do they transmit diseases or fevers, cause blisters, irritate the skin, sting, bite, kick, suck our blood, or fly in our eyes. They are not attracted to our food, do not infest our cupboards, nor eat our clothes or books. They will remain on an oak tree, for example, until they die—for once attached they cannot detach themselves.
Between 1950 and 1970 in the Collinsville district of mid-eastern Queensland, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the State, another cactus, known as Harrisia, was established. It spread in frightening proportions over many thousands of hectares of valuable grazing and farming land. The ground was impenetrably covered with the plant, or ‘curse’, which according to the landholders was worse than any of the prickly-pears (another kind of cactus pest with prickly, edible, pear-shaped fruit).
This terrifying Harrisia climbed through the trees up to 10 metres or so (30 feet), and also completely covered the ground. It was known as the ‘moonlight cactus’ because of its beautiful and abundant night flowers. Properly named Eriocereus martinii, this cactus is native to the Chaco province of Paraguay and Argentina. It was first introduced to Collinsville, Queensland, in 1900 as a pot plant because of its attractive flowers.
When the original cactus became too big, some was discarded in a nearby brigalow scrub, a type of wattle bush. Here it flourished and seeded unseen, unheeded and unreported for years. Birds ate the fruit and dropped the seed, and wild pigs scattered it so widely that the plants advanced like giant octopuses snaking out their tentacles to take a greater and greater grip on large areas of brigalow scrub country.
In vain attempts to eradicate the cactus menace, authorities spent up to $10 million on poisoning and mechanical programs, which managed to destroy or suppress some plants. But it was a losing battle.
A search began for insects to attack it. This resulted in a few species being introduced, with little success, until finally another coccid (Hypogeococcus festerianus) was found in Argentina in 1974. It was introduced and released into Australia in 1975.
To date this has been most effective on young plants and regrowth. The cure for the curse turned out to be another coccid insect!
New Testament comparison
Looking up into the oak trees in Israel, I have seen the crimson worm Coccus ilicis on the leaves and twigs. The Hebrew word used in Isa. 1:18 for ‘crimson’ in fact means the colour of this coccid crimson-grub. From its crushed bodies was obtained the scarlet dye used for the curtains of the tabernacle, the scarlet used with hyssop in the leper’s cleansing (Lev. 14:1-32), the scarlet for the token thread used by Rahab, and for the sprinkling of the book of the covenant by Moses. David was clothed in scarlet and our Lord Jesus was robed in scarlet. So scarlet in Scripture is the colour that speaks of both splendour and sin.
There is a striking parallel here in the New Testament. The rapid spread of the cactus pest may certainly be compared with that of sin, which by one man entered into the world (Rom. 5:12) and spread to all men. Like the cactus, sin could not be eradicated by any normal means—new life had to be applied. It was on a wooden cross (was it made from an oak tree?) that Jesus was crushed beneath the load of the curse of sin, and shed his blood as the cure for sin.
Cure for the curse
The cure for the ‘curse’ of the cactus plant was not found in spraying lifeless chemicals, but in the application of new life. Scripture also tells us the cure for the curse of sin is the application of the living Christ—the Creator of the universe who came into the world in human form to take upon Himself the punishment for sin which we humans deserved.
Throughout God’s creation there are many parallels between Scriptural incidents and today’s problems and for their solutions. Let us be reminded from the curse of the cactus plant and its cure that our Creator and Saviour, Jesus Christ, has provided the cure to the sin curse.
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