Ever worn any makeup? Used something for chapped lips? Polished your shoes? Chewed gum?
If so, you’ve probably used a natural product of the Chihuahuan desert, Candelilla wax. Candelilla wax comes from the Candelilla plant, a small succulent that grows in bunches and looks like it’s all stems. The plant usually has a bluish-white cast to it and is rarely more than a couple of feet high. It grows throughout the Chihuahuan desert, but your best chance of seeing it is in Big Bend National Park or the Big Bend State Ranch where it is protected from exploitation.
Candelilla is a true desert plant, preferring hot, dry conditions and well-drained calciferous soils. Young plants grow in single clumps. The leaves are so tiny, and last such a short time, you are not likely to ever see them at all. But the stems produce more than enough food to maintain the plant and help it grow. As stands of Candelilla become more established, the plants frequently grow into large circular patterns like giant donuts.
Candelilla blossoms are only 2 to 3 mm in diameter, but are exotic and quite lovely when viewed up close. The flowers grow all along the length of the stems but are never what one might describe as “showy.”
Candelilla protects itself and conserves moisture by coating its stems with a fine, hard wax. The wax has so many unique properties, it is probably the most useful substance on the American continent that is extracted entirely from wild plants.
The chewing gum industry is the biggest consumer of candelilla wax, followed closely by the cosmetic industry, but more than 20 other industries depend on it. Candelilla wax is used in polishes, adhesives, anti-corrosives, plastics, matches, integrated circuit boards, lubricants and precision molding applications.
Although Candelilla is easy to grow, cultivated plants don’t produce much wax. The best wax comes from plants in the wild. To get the wax, workers, known as candelilleros, gather the plant from the wild. Because it takes about 50 pounds of Candelilla plant to make a pound of wax, candelilleros do the first processing in the field, boiling the plants in a mixture of water and sulphuric acid. Boiling releases the wax which floats to the surface where it is collected and dried. By doing the first processing, candelilleros can carry much more wax to market than they could if they were just transporting the plants themselves.
To protect the plant from extinction, the Mexican government requires that all candelilla wax be sold to government cartels. But the government doesn’t pay well, so many candelilleros prefer to smuggle the wax to American buyers. On the other hand, Candelilla populations have become greatly reduced in Mexico, but supplies are abundant in the US where the plant enjoys federal protections. Naturally, the great quantities of Candelilla on the north side of the border encourages smugglers to transport the plant across the border for processing. The peculiar result of this situation is that Candelilla may be smuggled into Mexico, while its finished product is smuggled into the US. In fact, Candelilla may be the only agricultural product that is smuggled from the US into Mexico!
Candelilla’s future is probably secure despite its current exploitation. The plant doesn’t produce much wax during wet years, so supplies are unreliable. This situation encourages industry to develop alternatives to Candelilla wax, and indeed demand for the product is declining. The simple beauty of the plant is also helping protect it. In cultivation, Candelilla tends to become a translucent, light green. Its unique shape forms a nice contrast to many other plants in a xeric landscape and, of course, the fact that it’s almost impossible to kill encourages even “black-thumb-of-death” gardeners to try it.
The extreme East side and the extreme West side of Big Bend are the best places to see this plant in its native habitat. The easiest spot to reach is probably the short trail up to the scenic overlook just East of the Village campground. Candelilla is also doing well on the Mesa De Anguila and all along the Contrabando trail in the Big Bend State park near the Barton Warnock center in Lajitas. To see it bloom, look for it in early Spring, and look closely. Candelillas’ tiny blossoms repay a close look and the plant’s colorful history over the last century give it a special charm all its own.