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From Desert Plants to Dollars: Candelilla, Wax Making,
and Wax Products

wax making fire pit next to a drawing of a fire pit
A worker at La Caldera loads green candelilla plants into a vat of boiling water and acid suspended over a fire fueled by dried, spent candelilla. As shown in the diagram at right, the plants will begin to "give up" their wax in the form of a waxy foam, which the worker will skim off the top and place into a mold. Photo, left, by Raymond Skiles. Sketch by Sharon Roos, courtesy Texas Historical Commission.
photo of cadelilla
Candelilla, commonly known as "yerba" or the "weed," is sold as a medicinal tea in some Mexican herb shops. Reportedly, juice from the plant also was used as a remedy for venereal disease, hence the name "Euphorbia antisyphilitica." Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
photo of candelilla
The plant thrives on rocky limestone slopes, producing clusters up to 6 feet in diameter. At that size, they often die down in the center leaving a doughnut-shaped ring of candelilla. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil. Click to enlarge.

Experiments in cultivating candelilla for wax production have been unsuccessful. In one attempt, the land was prepared and the candelilla was planted and "grew like weeds," but when the enthusiastic entrepreneurs began harvesting, they found the plants produced almost no wax.

photo of cardauba wax
Carnauba wax, derived from the fronds of the carnauba wax palm tree (Copernica prunifera) of Brazil, is the hardest natural wax available and is very heat resistant. The wax is sold in chips or flakes, as shown at bottom. Historically, there has been a greater demand for this wax than candelilla.
photo of a lechuguilla
Like the hardy candelilla—which can withstand long periods of drought and high temperatures by thickening its waxy coating—lechuguilla plants also are desert survivors with specific adaptation techniques. Threatened by lack of moisture, this plant has shriveled to minimize surface exposure but will fill out again when rains come. Photo by Steve Black.

Various attempts to harvest candelilla with mowing machines and bulldozers have failed. It seems that two strong hands, a bent back, and a burro are still the best way to gather the plant economically.

photo of bundles of plant
After plants are harvested, the plants are carefully stacked into bundles of about 50 to 80 pounds each, tied together with a rope, and cinched tightly with a wooden "honda." Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
photo of packsaddles
"Fustes" (packsaddles) like these, when placed on a burro, will support four bundles of weeds or two bags of wax. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
photo of rope
Rope, or "mecate," made of lechuguilla fiber, used to tie bundles of candelilla. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
drawing of pitchforks
Pitchforks are used to lift plant stalks into the vat. The handmade version, carved from a mesquite branch, is far more common in the camps than the manufactured tool (shown on left). Drawing by Curtis Tunnell. Click to enlarge.

The Candelilla Plant

Candelilla is known as the "weed" to those who work with wax in west Texas, while the Mexican laborers simply call it "yerba." The botanist J.G. Zuccarini first described the plant for the scientific world in 1829 and assigned it the name Euphorbia antisyphilitica. It is curious that he did not discuss the plant's wax but did mention juice from the plant being used by the indigenous peoples as a remedy against venereal disease. Some Mexican herb shops still carry candelilla as a medicinal tea.

In 1909, G. Alcocer presented a new description of candelilla, named it Euphorbia cerifera, and discussed the fine wax produced by the plant. Alcocer's species is considered synonymous with Euphorbia antisyphilitica Zucc. and is the primary species of the plant utilized in wax production. Other minor species also occur in the Chihuahuan Desert. The common name candelilla probably was applied to the plant because of its small, erect, wax-coated stems, which resemble little candles.

Candelilla is a perennial and is found in locally abundant stands in Mexico in northern Zacatecas, western Nuevo Leon, eastern Durango, and scattered throughout Coahuila and Chihuahua, and in Texas in El Paso, Hudspeth, Presidio, Jeff Davis, Brewster, Terrell, and western Val Verde counties. Small, isolated populations have been reported in southern Texas and the Mexican states of Guanajuato and Hidalgo.

The plant commonly grows on well-drained limestone slopes but is occasionally found associated with igneous rocks, and it does not seem to grow well in bottomlands and clayey soils. The root system is small but each plant supports numerous erect stems, which are mostly simple but occasionally are branched. A plant of moderate size may produce as many as 100 stems and be, in aggregate, from 1 to 2.5 feet in diameter. The stems range from about 1 to 2 feet in length and 1/16 to 1/3 of an inch in diameter and are grayish green in color. In the wax camps we have occasionally observed an unusually large plant with stems at least 3 feet in length.

Where candelilla has a chance to grow normally, the plant clusters get larger and larger until they may be as much as 61/2 feet in diameter. When they get that large they begin to die down in the center and leave a doughnut-shaped ring of candelilla. Near McKinney Springs in 1980 we found plant clusters of this shape that had rabbit nests in the center of the ring. Detailed botanical descriptions of the plant can be found in Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of the Southwest by Robert Vines and in Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas by D.S. Correll and M.C. Johnston.

The candelilla plant has been observed flowering from April through August, apparently coinciding with spring and summer rains. Stands of the plant seem to be most abundant at elevations around 2,500 feet and are commonly associated with lechuguilla, sotol, chinograss, ocotillo, and various cacti. Severe freezes at higher elevations are said to kill the plants back to their roots. Candelilla is generally a very hardy species and not particularly susceptible to diseases or pests. It does serve as occasional forage for goats and rabbits. Texas A&M palynologist Vaughn Bryant says candelilla produces small amounts of pollen, which is sticky and tends to fall directly to the ground. Candelilla pollen is unlikely to be widespread or abundant and probably is rare in the archeological record.

The wax of the candelilla is an epidermal secretion on the stems that helps conserve internal moisture of the plants during severe hot and dry periods. The wax, which forms a scurfy coating on the stems, is much heavier in the dry season of the year and during periods of drought. Since average annual rainfall in the desert where candelilla flourishes ranges from about 4 to 20 inches, drought is not an uncommon condition. The moisture-protecting mechanism of the plant is apparently effective for, as Big Bend writer Virginia Madison has said, "You seldom see a dead candelilla plant."

The summer of 1980 was unusually hot and dry and many desert plant species such as lechuguilla and Spanish dagger suffered from desiccation, while candelilla seemed to suffer very little damage. Plants can be dug up and kept for long periods of time, and, even after the stems have become longitudinally wrinkled, the plant will recover when replanted in the soil. When cut or broken, the stems "bleed" a white, milky substance, and, if the plants are harvested by cutting, the root systems will die.

According to a 1953 study by botanists W.H. Hodge and H.H. Sineath, candelilla is the second most important vegetable wax after carnauba, which is extracted from a Brazilian palm. About ten tons of the plant can be harvested per acre where it grows abundantly, far less in most harvest areas. Since primitive wax-extraction methods produce a yield of only about 2 percent of plant weight, the refiner who marketed one million pounds of wax in a good year was representing exploitation of about 50 million pounds of wild plants from 2,500 to 5,000 acres of desert. Five or ten times that much wax may be imported annually from Mexico, representing denuding of perhaps as much as 50,000 acres of desert of candelilla growth. Can any desert species survive this magnitude of exploitation? Apparently candelilla has done fairly well, because wax production continues after seventy years.

The plants need from two to five years of growth before they produce significant wax. When we asked many informants familiar with wax making and marketing how long it took for candelilla growth to return in an area that has been intensively harvested, the estimates ranged from five years to fifty years. All of these estimates may be accurate for different areas and conditions. Wax refiner David Adams was more specific and said that after a first harvesting the candelilla will return in some abundance in two years; after a second harvesting it takes about five years for candelilla to come back; and after a third harvesting it might take ten years for there to be enough plants for economical harvesting. He said in some areas of northern Mexico they have depleted the candelilla through overexploitation and are now using pickaxes to pull out lechuguilla and greasewood in order to get the small amount of candelilla growing around those plants. In normal harvesting they would pull out the candelilla that is easy to recover and leave plants in and around lechuguilla to help the stand grow back.

In recent years the hearty plant has been transported widely as an ornamental, and it is reported to grow more robustly than in the native habitat but to produce little or no wax under protected conditions. Cultivation of candelilla for wax production has been attempted in Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic but these efforts have failed. A local informant said he was involved in an expensive experiment to grow candelilla near Laredo, Texas. The land was prepared and the candelilla was planted and "grew like weeds," but when the enthusiastic entrepreneurs began harvesting, they found the plants produced almost no wax. Other attempts at cultivation and mechanical harvesting of candelilla in the Presidio area were equally unsuccessful. Harvesting native stands of the plant and processing the wax under primitive conditions remains the best and perhaps only method of extracting candelilla wax.

Despite the failure of cultivation efforts and continued exploitation of the wild plant, candelilla probably will not be threatened with extinction. Some plants will grow back from remnant root fragments, and others grow in inaccessible niches where gathering is impractical. However, some scientists fear that, after harvesting, candelilla may never return to its original abundance and balance in the vegetation community. The impact of the weed harvesting on the desert environment in general and on associated sensitive plant communities in particular is a matter of concern to biologists in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Harvesting the Plant

Various attempts to harvest candelilla with mowing machines and bulldozers have failed. It seems that two strong hands, a bent back, and a burro are still the best way to gather the plant economically. The gatherers (arrieros) arise in the wax camps at dawn, and after a breakfast of coffee and tortillas, each man rounds up his hobbled burros and prepares from four to six animals for the day's work. Each burro gets a small wooden packsaddle (called a fuste, or occasionally aparejo), and, if the man is careful with his animals, a saddle blanket (corona) of burlap.

One informant said he had seen burros with large galled spots on their backs from carrying burdens without proper padding under the saddles. The man will ride on a favorite burro, behind the packsaddle, and carry a bag of tortillas with frijoles and chiles, and a plastic bleach bottle of river water. He may travel from a few hundred yards to as much as five miles, depending on how long the camp has been active, in order to find good candelilla growth. When a slope with good growth is located, he hobbles the burros and begins the hard, solitary work of "pulling weed."

The plants are usually pulled up by hand, but a sharpened stick may be used as a primitive spading fork. After dirt and rocks are shaken from the roots, the plants are thrown into wind-rows until a large quantity has been gathered. Then a rope 10 to 12 feet long (called a mecate) made in a local fabrica from lechuguilla fiber is laid out on the ground, and the plants are carefully stacked on it with root ends alternating with tips. About 50 to 80 pounds of plants are tied in a bundle with each rope, using a honda to facilitate cinching and quick release of the load. Later in the day the burros are rounded up, and four bundles of weed are tied on the packsaddle of each animal.

When asked how much candelilla can be carried by each burro, one candelillero (wax worker, or cerero) responded: "That depends entirely on the conscience of the man—one man may put 250 or even 300 pounds on a burro, while another man will never put over 150 pounds on his animals." So six burros and one man may bring in 1,200 pounds of weed which, when processed, will yield about 24 pounds of wax. The weed is stacked in orderly piles in the camp and may be stockpiled for days or weeks until it is time for it to be boiled for removal of the wax.

The wax gatherers pull all of the accessible plants they can find in an area before they move on to another stand of plants, so a broad band around each wax camp is denuded of plants before the camp is moved to another location along the river. In the past, the gatherers commonly forded the river and gathered weed indiscriminately in Texas and Mexico, taking no particular note of ranch or park boundaries unless forced to do so.

Over the years, the National Park Service has increased efforts to control illegal harvesting of candelilla in Big Bend National Park. In May 1980 a park official said they had caught a large burro train loaded with candelilla on Mesa de Anguila. The cereros (or candelilleros) were carrying candelilla down a treacherous trail and across the river to a wax camp about two miles up a tributary toward San Carlos. The burros were confiscated and the men turned over to Mexican authorities. These cereros were double smugglers—carrying weed out of the park and across the river to their camp and then bringing the extracted wax back across the river to a buyer.

The Park Service planned other raids on wax operations during the 1980s study. A camp on the Mexican side of the river in Boquillas Canyon was sending burro trains up a tributary canyon on the U.S. side to gather weed in the park. The Park Service planned to have enforcement personnel go down the river, seal off the trail, and trap the gatherers in the park with heavy loads of candelilla. Increased poaching of candelilla in the park is another indication that the weed is being overexploited in Mexico.

Boiling the Wax

In This Section:
The Candelilla Plant
Harvesting the Plant
Boiling the Wax
Refining the Wax
A Look at The Wax
Uses for Candelilla Wax

map of locations where candelilla is found
Candelilla is found in abundant stands in northern Mexico and in several west Texas counties. Click to enlarge.
photo of burros
Burros nibble on harvested candelilla. When growing, the plants serve as occasional forage for goats and rabbits. Photo by Raymond Skiles. Click to enlarge.
photo of candelilla
The plant likely was named candelilla because its small, erect, wax-coated stems resemble little candles. The plant usually requires two to five years of growth to produce enough wax to harvest productively. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.

The moisture-protecting mechanism of the plant is apparently effective: you seldom see a dead candelilla plant.

photo of cadelilla flowers
Small yellow-red flowers emerge periodically on the pencil-like candelilla stalks in spring and summer, apparently in response to rains. Photo by Glenn Evans, courtesy of the Texas Memorial Museum.
photo of Dimitrio Diez
Rising early for the day's work, Dimitrio Diez cooks a breakfast of tortillas on a make-shift griddle. Photo by Raymond Skiles. Click to enlarge.
photo of a candelillero
Strong arms and a sturdy back. A candelillero (or wax worker, "cerero") hauls an enormous bundle of candelilla. The plants are typically harvested entirely by hand, or with the aid of a sharpened stick. Photo by Raymond Skiles. Click to enlarge.
photo of a loaded burro
Workmen load a burro with bundles of harvested candelilla. The animals haul the plant stalks to the processing area, close to water and camp. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.

When asked how much candelilla can be carried by each burro, one candelillero responded: "That depends entirely on the conscience of the man-one man may put 250 or even 300 pounds on a burro, while another man will never put over 150 pounds on his animals."

photo of a cerrero
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 labor intensive from start to finish—a typical wax vat (foreground) requires, on average, from 200 to 300 gallons of water. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
photo of an empty wax vat
Empty wax vat ready to be charged with weed. The metal grate will be fastened securely over the candelilla stalks to keep them submerged in the boiling water. Photo by Curtis Tunnell, San Vicente area. Click to enlarge.

When sufficient candelilla has been stockpiled at camp, the vats are made ready for extracting the wax. (See cross-section of vat and firepit in image at top of page). Ashes are scooped or scraped from the firebox and thrown aside. The vat is cleaned of dirt and debris from previous firings and filled to within six or eight inches of the top with river water. An average vat will hold from 200 to 300 gallons of water, which is carried from the river in five-gallon cans. The same water, with some added at each firing, may be used for eight or nine days before the vat is emptied and cleaned.

Several large pitchfork loads of spent weed (yerba seca) are shoved under the vat, and a fire is started with matches and paper or dried creosote bush. Soon a roaring fire is burning beneath the vat, and gray smoke billows out of a chimney made from a steel drum. Additional forkloads of dry weed must be added to the fire every five or ten minutes during the firing, and occasionally a long-handled shovel (paila grande) is used to remove some of the growing mound of gray ash from the firebox.

photo of abandoned wax vat
Abandoned wax vat on the side of the river. Vats typically are deep metal containers, such as half a steel boiler or metal drum. Photo courtesy of Texas Historical Commission.
photo of a worker forking candelilla into the fire pit
A young worker forks loads of processed, dried candelilla into the fire pit under the wax vat. The spent weed (yerba seca), along with creosote bush, provide a ready and reliable fuel during the boiling process. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
photo of a roaring fire at the vat
A roaring fire is soon underway and the water in the vat begins to heat. Note piles of weed in foreground at left. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
photo of a worker with candelilla
Pitchforksful of green candelilla are loaded into the boiling water in the vat. Photo by Raymond Skiles. Click to enlarge.
photo of workers working with candelilla
The first load of candelilla is stomped down into the vat to pack it tightly. Photo by Curtis Tunnell. Click to enlarge.
photo of placing candelilla in the vat
Then another layer is added and carefully arranged so it is fully contained within the vat. The vat now holds as much as 500 pounds of weed. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
photo of tools of the trade
Tools of the trade. The skimmer, or "espumador," machete, water barrel, and other items used in wax processing. Photo by Raymond Skiles. Click to enlarge.

A high mound of candelilla is forked onto the water in the vat. Two men climb on top of the load and, while holding onto the open grates (parillas), they stomp and tromp the weed down to water level. Their shoes occasionally encounter the acid water, thus partly accounting for the large number of discarded shoes around wax camps. Then an additional six-inch layer of candelilla plants is placed carefully, lying horizontally, over the top of the vat). When these plants are tromped down, no loose ends will protrude above the water and interfere with scooping the wax. A smooth stick about four feet in length is used to push all loose plant ends down in the corners and along the edges of the vat.

The vat is now charged with as much as 500 pounds of weed. The grates then are pushed down on the neatly tucked load of weed, and a clamp is placed across the center of the vat. A gallon jug is opened and two cans of acid (acido obscuro or sulfurico) are poured on the packed weed. A pipe handle is placed on the clamp, and two men push it down, completely submerging the weed. A large rock is then used to hold the pipe in place. Soon the contents of the vat begin to boil and bubble and a brown foam of wax appears on the acid water.

photo of a discarded shoe
A discarded shoe of a worker who likely stomped down too hard on the weed and encountered the caustic acid water. Damaged shoes are commonly found at abandoned wax camps. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
photo of stomping weed
The final layer of weed is stomped into the vat. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
photo of workers and grate
Then the metal grates are folded over the vat and two workers climb on top to press the whole load down into the water. Following this step, two cans of acid are added to the vat, making the contents even more hazardous for the workers. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
photo of metal grates
Finally, the workers push a tall metal bar, or pipe, into the grate and lock it down over the vat. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
photo of steaming mix
When the steaming mix of plants, water, and acid begins to bubble, a candelillero begins the slow process of skimming foam off the top. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil. Click to enlarge.
photo of wax forming
The hot foam is skimmed into a container, such as a barrel, bucket, or even a hole in the ground. As it cools, the water separates out to the bottom and a creamy layer of wax forms in a layer above it, topped by ashes and debris. Photo by Raymond Skiles.
photo of the finished wax
Finished product. A worker holds a piece of raw wax, or "cerote," which has hardened in a barrel. Photo by Raymond Skiles. Click for more detail.
drawing of molds for wax
Molds for rough wax: a) improvised mold made from end of fiberglass canoe; b) steel drums cut lengthwise and crosswise; c) ground-surface and conical-hole earth molds. Graphic by Sharon Roos, Texas Historical Commission.

A candelillero, right, squats beside the vat with a perforated skimmer, or espumador. The hot foam may be skimmed into a cut-off steel drum, a bucket, a conical hole in the ground, or on the ground surface inside a dampened earthen dike. The hot foam separates as it is scooped into the mold, and the brownish water sinks to the bottom. Above the water is a layer of smooth, yellow cerote about the consistency of heavy cream, and on top is a crust of ashes, bubbles, and debris.

The cerote is left to harden overnight. If a barrel or bucket is used to form the wax, several inches of water must be left beneath the wax so that when it forms into a three- or four-inch-thick layer, it can be broken out easily. At one camp, molds made from steel drums cut lengthwise were used because the wax cake was easier to dislodge from these half-cylinders. One cerero said he always molded wax in the ground because it hardened quicker, was easy to dislodge from the hole, and weighed slightly more because of adhering sand.

photo of a worker squatting
Squatting beside a boiling vat, a worker scoops waxy foam from the vat into a steel-drum mold. Photo by Curtis Tunnell, Texas Historical Commission.
photo  of acid being added to boiling water
Another can of acid is added to the boiling water to increase the final wax yield. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
photo of dropping ashes
Then a small amount of ashes is dropped in, setting off a reaction that will force the last bit of wax out of the weed. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
photo of a worker adding cold water
Finally, when it seems that no more wax can be extracted from the load, a worker adds cold water to bring the liquid level up to near the top of the vat. It's now time to remove the cooked weed from the vat and start the process over again. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
photo of a worker forking candelilla
A worker forks the spent candelilla out of the vat, to make way for a new batch to be processed. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil. Click to enlarge.
photo of a worker using a hammerstone
Using a hammerstone, a worker breaks raw wax into smaller, angular chunks. These will be loaded into bags and hauled by burro train or truck to the refinery. Photo by Raymond Skiles. Click to enlarge.

The skimmer continues to skim wax from the vat every few minutes for a period of about 20 minutes. Then an extra can of acid is poured into the boiling water to increase the wax yield. A cerero said a gallon of acid will serve five or six vats of weed and is expected to yield about sixty to eighty pounds of raw wax.

After about half an hour the candelilla has yielded most of its wax. A handful of ashes is dropped into the corners of the vat opposite the skimming. This causes a violent reaction that drives the last traces of wax to the end of the vat, where they are scooped out. Wax makers never waste even small amounts of the valuable wax..

When the man in charge is convinced that no more wax will come from the load, cold water is added to bring the liquid level to within an inch of the top of the vat. The grates are then released from the clamp and thrown back, and a soggy mass of spent weed rises from the vat. If the men have no wheelbarrow, they lay two long, smooth poles parallel on the ground beside the vat and a mound of wet weed is forked onto the poles. The men then carry the load a few yards and dump it on a mound of drying spent weed, which will eventually be used as fuel.

More dry weed is stoked under the vat while fresh candelilla is being forked onto the water in the vat—and the process begins again. Since the water level in the vat was just right before the spent weed was removed, it will again be right when the vat is recharged. It never overflows. This process is repeated over and over until the stacks of candelilla and the men are exhausted.

Worker Ramon Riojas said he expected to get twelve pounds of wax from each vatload of weed. Since thirty minutes are spent on each vat load, he might produce 240 pounds of wax in a ten-hour day. At $1.50 per pound (market price 1980), this wax could be worth about $360 when refined. Ramon probably gets about ten cents per pound, or $24 per day.

When the cakes of cerote are hardened, they are removed from the molds and broken into angular chunks with a hammerstone .The wax chunks are placed in burlap bags, which are then crudely sewn shut with cordage. The valuable bags of cerote may then be hidden in a safe place nearby; we have never seen them stacked in camp. Perhaps in some secluded rock niche they are safer from brushfires, government agents, and bandits.

Refining the Wax

drawing of cerreros carrying cooked weed
Cerreros use two unattached poles to carry a pile of cooked weed, which will be dumped out, dried and re-used as fuel. Drawing by Sharon Roos, Texas Historical Commission.
drawing of tools for wax production
Long-handled tools used in wax processing. "Paila grande," right, used for shoveling ashes from the firebox and a stick used to poke loose weed into a vat. Drawings by Sharon Roos, Texas Historical Commission.
drawing of a skimmer
Skimmer used to skim foam off top of vat and a can tied onto a stick, used for adding acid into the mix. Drawing by Sharon Roos, Texas Historical Commission.
photo of Mauel Gonzales
Manuel Gonzales breaks wax that has been refined in a processing facility in Alpine. Photo by Raymond Skiles, 1982.
drawing of Casner wax plant
Casner wax-refining plant in Alpine, as it appeared in 1976 (not drawn to scale). Drawing courtesy Texas Historical Commission. Click to enlarge.
drawing of Casner wax plant
Yards of good-quality wax, refined and hardened into a slab, stretch in front of worker Manuel Gonzales, who is breaking it into chunks. During the refining process, raw wax is put into vats and melted, then drained out onto the concrete floor to a depth of about 3 inches thick. There it cools and hardens. Photo by Raymond Skiles, 1982. Click to enlarge.
photo of a bag of refined wax
A bag of refined wax ready for shipment to distributors. Photo by Raymond Skiles, 1982.

It is said that an expert wax maker can twist a plant and pull it through his hands and accurately predict the yield of a stand of candelilla.

photo of cerote and refined wax
Cerote, on the left, and refined wax, on the right, in the hands of a master wax maker at Adams Ranch. Refined wax typically will break into angular chunks with many facets. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
Photo of room with highly polished floors, most likely a result of candelilla wax
Highly polished dance floors likely have had a coating of wax made from candelilla.
Photo of Pond's skin cream, one of many products composed of candelilla wax
One of the face creams with candelilla currently on the market.
Photo of Redken Conditioner, one of many products composed of candelilla wax
Yet another application for candelilla wax.

Cerote as it comes in from the camps along the river is unsuitable for marketing and must be refined. In recent decades all wax refining and marketing in west Texas has been done by J.E. Casner and David Adams.

Casner described the following process as practiced in his Alpine refinery in 1976. The two large, circular steel vats have flat bottoms and are about 10 feet (3 m) in diameter and 6.5 feet (2 m) in depth. These vats rest in a large firebox made of fire-bricks. Butane heating elements apply flames to the bases of the vats, and the wax melts at about 160 degrees F. The heat must be carefully monitored and controlled to prevent boil overs. About 5,500 pounds (wax is weighed in pounds; 1 lb. equals .4536 kg) of cerote is placed in each vat with about 10 feet of water in the bottom to keep it from scorching. The vats are heated for five to six hours to drive off all moisture from the wax and let sand settle to the bottom. The floor of the building immediately in front of the vats is smooth, well-waxed concrete and is divided into shallow, square septa by steel bulkheads that are about 8 inches high. The hot wax is drained through pipes into these shallow floor "cells" to cool in about 3-inch-thick layers.

About 2 inches of residue in the bottom of each big vat is dipped into a smaller rectangular vat, where it is boiled in about two feet of water. The wax is left to harden on top of the water and is then broken out and placed in the next batch in the big vats. Dregs from the bottom of the rectangular tank are discarded. The refined wax on the floor cools overnight and forms four solid cakes of wax about 10 feet by 16 feet in size and 3 inches in thickness. These wax cakes are pried up the following day and broken into fist-size chunks with ball-peen hammers. The angular chunks of refined wax are then placed in new burlap bags (ca. 100 pounds each), and the bags are sewn shut for shipping.

In a 1980 interview, Adams described a similar refining plant at his ranch on the Rio Grande.

We take the crude wax and boil it with a little bit of sulphuric acid, and boil the water out of it, and then just let it set until the dirt and stuff like that settles to the bottom. And then we pour it out of the vat into cooling platforms and let it cool. And we change the color from a whitish color to a kind of tan or brown which is the difference in the moisture content. We sell a refined wax. It's just nearly pure wax. When we buy it, it has about 10 percent dirt and water mixed up.

Adams said he bought his big refining vat from Asa Jones. Asa told Adams he paid $50 for the vat and had used it for years, so Adams thought he might buy it "used" for about $20. Instead, Asa said because of inflation it had increased in value to $150, and that was what it cost.

Ramon Riojas, foreman on the Adams Ranch, said they put about 3,500 pounds of cerote in the big vat and use butane burners to heat it. When the wax is sufficiently cooked, it is drained onto the cooling floors in the barn out of the sun and rain. He said the floors retain heat, so it is necessary to alternate between them so one of them can cool and thereby cool the wax more quickly. Once the refined wax cools, it is broken up with bars and hammers and bagged in new burlap bags (costal). The wax is carefully weighed and exactly 138 pounds of refined wax is put in each two-pound sack, for a total weight of 140 pounds per bag. At the time of our visit there was about 15,000 pounds of wax at the refinery, and Riojas was very proud that it was "wax produced by Ramon." He provided us with fragments of cerote and refined wax and assured us that we would find them to be of the highest quality.

A Look at the Wax

Wax forms on candelilla stems in a flaky coating that is heavier during the dry season (November through March) and in colder months. Rain, when it does fall, removes some of the wax from the stems and makes the plants less likely to produce wax until the area has again dried out. It is said that an expert wax maker can twist a plant and pull it through his hands and accurately predict the yield of a stand of candelilla. Even a novice can twist stems of the plant and find his hands covered with tiny white flakes of wax..

The wax yield is about 1.5 to 2.5 percent of plant weight. Cerote is the common name of raw wax as it is brought in from camps along the river. The raw wax is in large angular chunks, from the size of your fist to almost as large as your head, weighing about 7 to 35 ounces (200 to 1,000 grams) each. The cerote chunks are broken from large molded blocks by percussion and exhibit curved (conchoidal) fractures on many facets. Raw wax is a dirty buff color and contains obvious bubbles, sand grains, and fragments of plant stems and carbon. The refined wax, as marketed, is in percussion-fractured, angular chunks of a more uniform shape, averaging about 3 by 4 inches in size and weighing about 5 ounces each. These fragments contain no obvious contaminants, are somewhat heavier by volume and more dense than cerote, and are a dark caramel or amber in color.

After the wax has been refined, it has a hardness of between one and two on the mineral scale, as described by Hare and Bjerregaard in a 1910 journal article, and it can be scratched easily with your thumbnail. It is harder and more brittle than beeswax and less so than carnauba. When candelilla wax is warmed, the odor resembles that of beeswax. In the sample analyzed by Hare and Bjerregaard, the melting point was found to be 67 to 68 degrees C (ca. 153 to 154 degrees F) and the solidifying point, 64.5 degrees C (148.1 degrees F). They give the refractive index as 1.4555 at 71.5 degrees C (160.7 degrees F) and compare these and other characteristics to carnauba, beeswax, and Chinese insect wax. After combustion the wax yielded 80.3% carbon and 12.69% hydrogen.

Wax from plants harvested in the winter has a higher melting point and is somewhat harder than that obtained from plants harvested in other seasons. Plants of different ages are also said to yield wax with slightly different properties. Candelilla wax is soluble in organic solvents such as acetone, benzine, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, ether, and gasoline—particularly when the solvents are heated. Alcohol can be used to remove resins from the wax for purification. (Daugherty, Sineath, and Wastler in 1953 published an article in the Engineering Experiment Station Bulletin of the Georgia Institute of Technology in which five tables of detailed data on wax from several species of candelilla, including Euphorbia antisyphilitica, are provided.)

Uses for Wax

Few people in this country have ever heard of candelilla wax and only a handful have seen it being produced, yet nearly everyone has had personal contact with it. If you have chewed gum, used cosmetics, worn shoes, ridden horse-back, polished an auto or an antique, played a phonograph record, or walked across a dance floor, you have probably encountered wax from candelilla plants.

Traditional or folk uses for the wax include candles, religious statues, artificial flowers, cloth waterproofing, leather dressing, chewing gum, dance-floor wax, and coating for the small wax matches from Mexico. According to W.H Hodge and H.H. Sineath in a 1956 article in Economic Botany, candles made from the wax are said to "burn with a bright light and an agreeable odor."

Since before World War I, when the wax became readily available, it has been used extensively in chewing gum and, more recently, in breath mints. Various big name companies have used the wax in automobile polish, floor waxes, furniture polish, and saddle soap. Leather shoes are treated with the wax to facilitate polishing and prevent squeaking, and leather-stitching thread is waxed for strength, ease in sewing, and waterproofing. The wax is used in carbon paper, parchment, stencil and tracing papers, and as an ingredient in inks for printing, stamping, and writing. Mixed with gum elastic and guttapercha, it has been used extensively in electrical insulation. Fine, high-luster varnishes and lacquers contain candelilla wax, and various products such as adhesives, cements, cosmetics, crayons, and lead pencils also contain small amounts.

During the world wars when other waxes were scarce, candelilla wax was indispensable to the military for waterproofing and insect-proofing tents, tarpaulins, thread, and fabric. Airplane parts were coated to prevent deterioration and lessen friction. Some explosives contained small amounts of wax, and the bags of powder charges for naval guns were impregnated with it.

Candelilla wax has been used as a hardener for soft waxes and as a dilutant for beeswax and carnauba. It serves well as an acid-proofing agent in metal etching. Even unexpected products like linoleum, celluloid, plastics, rubber, ointments, and paint removers contain small amounts of candelilla wax. Phonograph records, precision castings, dental castings, anatomical models, and molded figurines utilize the wax. The textile industry has used the wax as sizing in fabrics, to coat thread, and to lessen friction on shuttles in looms.

Certainly a product that has been found useful for such diverse applications probably has been used in dozens of other industrial products as well. In his 1941 Nature Magazine article, John Whitaker says candelilla wax probably has more uses than any other product originating from an uncultivated plant on this continent. And yet, primary production is still by means of back-breaking labor and burro power.

photo of Manuel Gonzales
Manuel Gonzales demonstrates the dispensing of sulphuric acid at Alpine, Texas, refining facility. A small amount of acid is added to the raw wax as it is boiled. Photo by Raymond Skiles.
photo of a slab of refined wax
A slab of refined wax. The process eliminates most impurities and produces a hard, caramel-colored wax noted for its heat-resistance.
photo of candelilla plant
Wax in the raw. Twisting the stem of the candelilla plant causes tiny white flakes of wax to slough off onto your fingers. Photo by Susan Dial.
photo of refined wax
This refined wax has lost its dirty buff color, taking on a golden brown tone. It is much harder than beeswax. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.

If you have chewed gum, used cosmetics, worn shoes, ridden horse-back, polished an auto or an antique, played a phonograph record, or walked across a dance floor, you have probably encountered wax from candelilla plants.

Photo of Trident chewing gum, one of many products composed of candelilla wax
Many varieties of chewing gum list candelilla in their ingredients.
Photo of lip balm, one of many products composed of wax
Lipsticks, gloss, and lip balm utilize the wax in small amounts.