Whether in the Wild West or on your work desk, the prickly cactus is an enigma amongst plants. They have a unique look that some people simply adore, but there’s no denying the majesty of wild cacti fields in desert vistas.
Imagine the vast landscapes of Mexico and the arid deserts of North America without them, and you’d quickly understand they hold a special place in the natural world.
They may be the introverts of the plant world, keeping you at bay with their painful spikes and preferring you just leave them alone. But after reading this, you’ll probably want some for your own garden collection regardless.
Image by Monika from Pixabay
27 Facts About Cactus
Let’s take a deeper look at this fascinating plant species and its peculiarities.
1. Cacti Can Store Incredible Amounts of Water
After all, they live in the desert where the climate is brutal. Your average house plant would wither up and become a crispy mess after a few days exposed to the intense heat and lack of water. But cacti have a special trick up their sleeves.
Image by Gunter Rohe from Pixabay
It does rain in the desert on rare occasions, and when it does, these succulents get sucking — they absorb gallons of water through their roots at a fast pace while the going’s good. The exact amount will vary depending on the size of the cactus, but for example, a full-grown Saguaro can store up to 200 gallons in one go.
2. The Spines on a Cactus Are Actually Its Leaves
No, they’re not thorns after all. The leaves on a plant are vital for producing food, without which the parent plant would die. Cactus leaves (called “spines”) can come in different prickly shapes: straight, curved, bristle-like, needle-like, round, and even hooked.
There are valid reasons why cacti have spines instead of standard leaves. Self-protection against hungry desert-dwelling herbivores is one of them. Another is water collection in foggy deserts, where the cool mist condenses on the spines and trickles down to the roots.
They also collectively provide shade to the main stem of the plant, and trap air around it to prevent moisture being wicked away by the hot desert winds.
3. Cacti Have Very Shallow Root Systems
You’d think they’d dive deep into the desert terrain in search of water, but no. Any water in the desert evaporates pretty fast, leaving no opportunity for it to sink into the ground.
Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay
So the clever cactus sends its roots less than an inch downwards and then spreads them outward to collect as much water as possible before dries up.
This network of roots just below the broiling desert sands can cover a fairly large area radiating outward from the stem, so watch where you walk if you go near one.
4. Cacti Can Have Long Lifespans
Ask any plant owner and they may sheepishly admit they’ve killed a cactus or two in their time. Ask others and they may tell you about the decades-old cactus their grandma handed down to them. The average lifespan of these curious plants can be anywhere from 10 – 200 years, as long as the conditions are right.
They need fast-draining soil, optimum temperatures, and natural lighting. Houseplant cacti can be a little fussier than the wild ones that adapt to survive their environment. To elongate their lives, ensure they’re in the best spot to thrive and don’t overwater them as the roots will rot.
5. Cacti Stomata Open at Night
Stomata are microscopic pores that all plants use to “breathe” — they take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen through this mechanism, usually during the day. It’s essential for photosynthesis, which ensures the plant has enough food and energy.
Image by David Mark from Pixabay
But during this process of intake and output, plants can lose a lot of water. That’s not ideal in a desert climate where the intense sun evaporates the water off your eyeballs, let alone a plant. So cacti, again, have evolved a crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM).
This allows them to close their stomata daily to protect their precious water reserves. They then open them at night to “breathe” while the air is cooler and less evaporation occurs.
6. Wild Cactus Go Dormant in Summer
It almost sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? While many plants and trees enjoy an annual rest during cold winter, the hearty cactus tends to dormant in summer.
This is because the heat gets too intense, which stresses them out and causes them to keep their stomata closed during both the day and the night as a defense mechanism.
The resultant lack of photosynthesis leads the plant to a dormancy phase where growth is halted. That is until autumn hits, when temperatures cool and they can begin to “breathe” and grow again.
7. Cacti Have Ant Bodyguards
You’d think the spiky spines were deterrent enough to keep unwanted contact from prying herbivores (and humans) at bay, and for the most part they are. Those needles can leave painful pricks in larger animals but can’t protect against smaller invaders.
Image by elevados from Pixabay
Mealybugs and other plant pests can easily maneuver around the spines, so the cacti have devised a form of pest control. They secrete four types of nectar in order to attract ants, and, with food and water being so scarce in the arid environment, the ants are more than happy to come running.
To protect this precious resource, the ants will attack anything else on the plant, including smaller pests and even fungi and bacteria that might kill the plant. It’s a win-win for both parties.
8. Cacti Can Grow Almost Anywhere
The desert may be their standard environment, but it might surprise you that cacti live happily in the tropics and even on snow-clad mountain tops. They’re highly adaptable plants, and have managed to populate most landscapes.
Mountain cacti tend to grow wooly spines to protect them from strong mountain winds and frost and absorb moisture from melted snow. In the tropics, as long as their roots can breathe in coarse, airy soil that drains fast and they get some shade (they actually like it!), they’ll do just fine.
9. Don’t Drink Water Out of a Cactus if You Can Help It
It’s been said often that if you’re lost in the desert, head for a cactus, cut off a piece and drink deeply. The plant might have gallons of water at your disposal, but it’s not going to taste good.
Image by ILIER NAVARRO from Pixabay
In fact, the water from inside a cactus is full of alkaloids and acids, so it’s very bitter. Drinking it would put your kidneys into overdrive to filter them out before safely sending the liquid to your bloodstream, so you might do yourself more harm than good.
That being said, you can technically still drink water from a cactus if you’re desperate enough to do it.
10. Not All Succulents Are Cacti
However, all cacti are succulents. To most people, these terms are interchangeable, but there are subtle differences.
While they have a lot in common (water retention, a waxy surface, and thorns that appear to be spines), the main difference is that cacti have areoles whereas succulents don’t. Areoles are the bumpy openings on the plants where spines and flowers emerge from and are so named because of their resemblance to nipples.
11. Cacti Have a Waxy Coating
Cacti have a unique feeling to their stems compared to other plants. Most of the latter have breathable surfaces that easily allow the water from a humid environment to penetrate their leaves and stems.
In the desert there isn’t much humidity to be had, so a cactus has to do what a cactus has to do — it evolved a waxy surface to prevent the arid desert air from wicking away its moisture. This allows the plant to protect its reserves and stay hydrated long enough to survive.
Image by annca from Pixabay
12. Only Mature Cacti Produce Flowers
Cacti can deliver the most vibrant blooms, typically only one per areole. But age is an important factor as they can only put out flowers once they’re mature and ready for pollination (literally, the “birds and the bees”).
The age of maturity is specific to the species of cactus, though. Some may mature at a young age and put out flowers in various colors, from pink to blue and white to orange. Others can take 30 years to mature enough to produce a flower.
Sometimes, a cactus won’t flower if its nutritional and fertilization needs aren’t met.
13. You Can’t Cultivate From Wild Cacti
They’re protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). So plucking pieces off for your home collection is a big no-no.
There is no need to shed tears over it, though — many greenhouse growers produce fantastic cacti for plant enthusiasts to call their own for indoor and outdoor environments.
14. Cacti Have Unusual Pollinators
Bees and butterflies can pollinate a cactus, but they’re pretty standard pollinators with many other plants, too. Moths, hummingbirds, and bats are the most unusual ones that will help a cactus reproduce. They typically pollinate by carrying nectar from one plant to another when they sip.
Image by jadis96 from Pixabay
Home growers usually don’t wait for nature to get involved and do it themselves. This is achieved by swabbing the pollen stamen or just removing it and inserting it into the other cactus flower.
15. Some Cacti Are Psychoactive
Nevermind magic mushrooms, how about some abracadabra cacti? Some species of cactus contain psychoactive compounds that affect the central nervous system. It’s usually a compound called mescaline, producing a hallucinogenic effect.
Shamans use these powerful substances in North and South America to induce a trance-like state to better commune with God. The peyote cactus in North America and the San Pedro cactus in South America are two such mescaline-containing plants.
16. Dragon Fruit is From the Cactus Family
Now their exotic shape and curious inside make sense, right? Dragon fruit grows on a member of the climbing cactus family. It originally came from the tropical regions of Central and South America, where it grew in humid conditions with a mild climate.
17. The Word Origin of “Cactus” Might Surprise You
Basically, the word we know today is derived from the Greek word “Kaktos”. Kaktos is a Spanish artichoke in Greece, also known as the “prickly plant of Sicily”. The Greeks used this word to describe the cactus as it seemed similar to the artichoke.
Image by stanbalik from Pixabay
It came out later that what they were looking at was actually an artichoke, though, and not a cactus as we know them. So it seems the cactus was named after a rather tasty veggie in a weird etymological twist.
18. The Tallest Cactus Is the Elephant Cactus
Named for the shape of its main stem, which resembles an elephant’s foot, the pachycereus elephant cactus can grow to heights of 60 feet. The bottom of its main stem can also reach three feet in diameter, making it impressive in height and girth.
You’ll find this cactus growing in Californian deserts, on islands in the Gulf, and in northern Mexico. It prefers to plant itself on rocky hills and flat plains in arid conditions.
19. Some Cacti Aren’t Green
Of course, succulents come in some pretty pastel hues, but a few cacti aren’t primarily green, too. This can be a problem for chlorophyll production, so often, these plants are grafted onto green cacti so that they have an adequate food source.
One of these wondrous mutants is the Gymnocalycium Mihanovichii Friedrichii ‘Rubra. It can present as red, yellow, white, purplish, or even orange.
Image by manseok Kim from Pixabay
It makes for a unique and interesting blobby little burst of color in your cactus collection, but without a graft it won’t survive. Any species of green cacti will serve the purpose, so you don’t need to worry about specifics.
20. Areoles Can Only Flower Once
Sad but true. Once an areole has produced a flower, it will never produce another in the plant’s lifetime. Instead, a flower will bloom from a different areole when the cactus is ready to flower again.
This is the case for most cacti, but there are always exceptions to the rules, and these five cacti are just that. Lepismium cruciforme, Myrtillocactus, P. schottii, Rhipsalis russellii, and P. marginatus can all flower from the same areole multiple times.
The time it takes for a cactus to bloom differs between species. Cacti are generally slow-growing, and most commonly bloom once a year. Some will bloom twice a year, and then you get some that don’t bloom at all, usually because conditions aren’t optimal or they aren’t mature enough yet.
If you want to see one of the rarest and most fleeting cactus flowers, the moonflower cactus blooms once a year for only 12 hours. But it’s a perfectly snow-white flower, so it’s worth the wait — don’t miss it!
Image by Ralph from Pixabay
21. Cactus Can Be a Food Source
These days you’re more likely to see it as an ingredient in a trendy gastropub’s version of a Mexican taco, or possibly at a health food store toting its “miracle dieting/curative” properties. Aside from fanciful eating, they tend to be more medically popular for their psychoactive properties.
Not the hallucinogenic ones (although those can be popular, too), but ones that actually boost cognitive performance. These cacti, like the Indian Fig, are used in herbal medicines thanks to their benefits to the brain.
About 12,000 years ago, ancient communities in Mexico and Peru included certain cacti in their meal plans, harvesting their fruits and returning them to their camps for meal prep. Whether they benefited from a boost in mental performance is hard to say, but clearly, the fruits were deemed safe to eat and enjoyed regularly.
22. A Cactus Killed a Man in Arizona
In 1982, a man in Arizona repeatedly shot at a saguaro cactus that was 27 feet tall in an attempt to destroy it. One can only guess that he didn’t have an ax on hand. Either way, it wasn’t a smart move, as the saguaro ended up toppling over right onto him, killing him instantly.
Image by Marabu from Pixabay
The cactus might’ve gotten its own that time, but removing one by firearm isn’t recommended. If you have a problematic cactus, rather reach out to the wildlife service for safe removal. They know how to handle cacti without damaging the surrounding area (or getting squashed by one).
23. Cacti Are Popular Houseplants
And the most popular ones on Instagram, at that. It’s easy to see why. They’re elegant, quirky, they don’t change shape quickly, and it’s an honest-to-goodness living thing that you can boast about and beautify your space with.
Some people are drawn to the interesting shapes, some enjoy their vivid blooms, while other garden enthusiasts love how low-maintenance they are. Calatheas are the drama queens of plants; even alocasias can be persnickety. But give a cactus a nice clay pot and some fast-draining soil, then you can ignore it for months on end and it’ll be just fine.
Don’t put a cactus in the bathroom — the humidity could cause rot due to inadvertent overwatering. Feng Shui suggests having a cactus in the house can bring in bad energy, but you’ll probably find any cacti enthusiast will disagree with that perspective.
Image by liqionary from Pixabay
24. There’s a Cactus Pokémon
Fans of the franchise and these spiky plants might delight in Maractus, the cactus Pokémon. It’s a cute little pocket monster with large ears, toting yellow and dark green spikes, but its overall appearance is feminine.
Maractus even sings and dances to chase away bird Pokémon — who wouldn’t find that adorable? Why not buy a Poké plushie to go with your cacti collection because, after all, you’ve “gotta catch ‘em all”.
25. Cactus Fruits Are Super Nutritious
The curious opuntia fruit, which is also known as prickly pear or nopal, is an oddly delicious addition to your health regime. It’s chock-a-block full of antioxidants, amino acids, and fatty acids, providing plenty of health benefits. These cactus fruits also have a high potassium content so that they can aid and improve digestion.
Image by Valter Cirillo from Pixabay
These fruits only come from the opuntia species that thrive in Central America and arid areas of North America and can vary in color.
26. The Saguaro Blossom Is Arizona’s State Flower
Saguaros hold a special place in the cactus family as far as Arizona is concerned. They can grow anywhere from 10 – 52 feet tall, and up to 30 inches wide with as many as 49 arms (or branches).
They grow slowly, so large ones are treasured. Blossoms appear on the ends of the arms and have a sweet, melon-like scent, and in 1931 Arizona made these saguaro flowers their official state flower.
Image by kslackner from Pixabay
27. There Are About 2,000 Cactus Species
It’s no wonder there are so many, when you think of all the colors and shapes, you’re able to see not only in the wild but in your local gardening shop.
From the typical desert-dwelling cacti to the tropical and mountainous ones, most of them grow in the Americas. However, Mexico has the greatest number and variety of cacti in the world.