Wax, Men, and Money

February 14, 2011

In 1981, the Texas Historical Commission published a report entitled “Wax, Men, & Money: A Historical & Archeological Study of Candelilla Wax Camps along the Rio Grande Border of Texas” by Curtis Tunnell (graphics by Sharon Roos).

Tunnell led some extraordinary research into this wax industry, which has survived (in one form or another) since the Spanish missions. Lucky for us! Here are some notes on this excellent text:

Candelilla Plant

Also known as the “weed” or “yerba,” the candelilla plant’s scientific name as assigned in 1829 is Euphorbia antisyphilitica. The plant is perennial and is found most naturally abundant in the areas shown in this map:

It grows well on well-drained limestone slopes, but does not tend to grow in bottomlands and clayey soils. Candelilla plants have small root systems that support numerous stems with a grayish green color. Although they can grow up to 2 m in diameter, a moderate size is 0.3-0.5 m in diameter with about 100 stems, ranging in length from 0.3-0.6 m and in diameter from 4 to 8 mm. Candelilla plants are very hardy and resistant to disease/pests; they flower during the spring and summer rains.

Best Conditions for Wax

The wax is a secretion of the plant skin to conserve moisture, and thus the wax is much heavier during the dry season and droughts. The average annual rainfall in its natural desert is 100 to 500 mm, so drought is common. Candelillas need from 2-5 years of growth before they produce significant wax. David Adams, one of the main refiners of candelilla wax in West Texas, was quoted saying that after the first harvesting, the candelilla return with some abundance in 2 years; after the second, 5 years; and after the third, possibly 10 years. Yet, the plant population had thus far sustained itself for 70 years of intense production. Candelilla plants regenerate from the root systems.

Attempts to Cultivate

Efforts in Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic have failed to cultivate candelilla for wax production. Likewise in Laredo, TX, and Presidio, TX, although the plants grew tremendously, they did not produce wax. Thus, if the Las Lomas community does wish to use candelilla wax, they may need to rely on the supply chain already in place. In this graphic, the dynamic of the sale and production of the wax is illustrated.

How to Get the Wax Out

The best way to harvest the plant known so far is simply to pull the “weed” by hand. Attempts to cut it do not work as well, and often kill the plant.

Once gathered, the wax is boiled out of the plants in a packed vat of acidic water. The crude wax (creote) is skimmed off the surface as it boils. Some of the instruments and the set up are diagrammed here:

Once the crude wax is cooled, it is sent to a refinery, where the dirt and other impurities are filtered out. Here is a diagram of one of these factories.

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