Guest Author - Connie Krochmal
Succulents are very useful plants. They can serve many roles other than as landscaping plants. Historically, two species of succulents have been used as wax sources in the U.S. and Mexico.
Waxes are a type of fat that can be used not only for candles but also for soaps and various skin/hair care products. One of these is known as candelilla wax. Candelilla wax can come from two different species of succulents.
In the U.S., there was a major source of wax from one kind of succulent—the candelilla. Historically this was extracted from a type of Euphorbia called Euphorbia antisyphilitica or Euphorbia cerifera. A type of bush, this plant is native to the Southwest and Mexico. This wax has many commercial and industrial uses.
Glenn Springs, Texas was once a major source of this wax. Now a ghost town, it is located in the western part of the state along the Big Bend. The asparagus-like stems are coated with a layer of wax that protects the plant from desiccation. To extract the wax, it is necessary to boil the stems in water. Sulphuric acid was added to the water. The wax could then be skimmed from the top of the liquid and prepared for sale. There was a ready market in both the U.S. and Mexico for the wax. In Mexico, the government once had a monopoly on the collection, processing, and sale of the product. This wax was also commercially produced at least for a time in Arizona during the 1950’s or so.
The wax from this euphorbia was used for polishes, leather waxes and polishes, varnishes, pastes, and waxes for furniture and floors, creams, dental moulds, the manufacture of paper, waterproofing textiles and boxes, chewing gum, phonograph records, sealing waxes, metal lacquers, paint removers, printing dyes, and the insulation for electrical wire. For candles, this is typically mixed with paraffin.
Candelilla wax also comes from another species that is now known as Pedilanthus. However, it was once classified as a Euphorbia. So it is definitely related to the other species that yields wax. Pedilanthus pavonis grows as a shrub, and is native to Mexico. During the World War II, the pedilanthus also served as a source of rubber when the Allies’ usual source of rubber from elsewhere in the world was no longer available. The Pedilanthus wax was historically used for varnishes, waxes, candles, polishing pastes, and phonograph records, and all the same commercial/industrial uses as carnuba wax.