Candelilla (Euphorbia cerifera)
Native to North Mexico Candelilla is an evergreen shrub with pencil-like stalks that grow to 1 meter.
High quality wax exudes from the plant pores and forms a thin coating that is extracted by boiling the leaves and stems.
It protects the skin from moisture loss and gives lip balms firmness and a smooth texture. It has a natural shelf life of 2 years.
Navidad Zubia on his mule. Burros are cheaper and more nimble than trucks for hauling candelilla from remote mountain terrain.
Candelilla wax is still harvested and processed in traditional ways. The most efficient harvesting and field practices are handed down from generation to generation and remain largely unchanged since 1910.
Candelilla flourishes freely at elevations between 1100 and 3800 ft on well-drained, south-facing limestone slopes. Over the years attempts to commercialize production have failed. Cultivation and irrigation reduces the plant’s waxy coating. Mechanical cutting causes the milky sap to drain and the plant to die, thus lengthening propagation. The fastest recovery is from rhizomes left in the soil when the candelilla plant is pulled up by hand.
A “tercio” (bundle) of candelilla bound by a “hondilla” and slip knot.
Wax makers (candelilleros), many of them working along in remote desert areas, cut massive stacks of the plant by hand, then boil it in metal vats to extract the wax. The raw wax (cerote) is then stuffed into huge burlap bags and hauled down dusty trails on a back of small burros to be refined.
Raw wax is a dirty buff colour and contains obvious bubbles, sand grains, and fragments of plant stems and carbon. The refined wax is of a more uniform shape and size, containing no obvious contaminants. The chunks are heavier and more dense than cerote, and are a dark caramel or amber colour.
Threading his way through bundles of candelilla ready to be processed, a cerrero heads toward the river for another bucketful of water to fill the vat. The process is labour intensive from start to finish—a typical wax vat (foreground) requires, on average, from 200 to 300 gallons of water.
Candelilla management is left to the candelilleros who are expected to harvest prudently in order to preserve future livelihood.
A candelillero holds a piece of raw wax, or “cerote”, which has hardened in a barrel.