20 Amazing facts You Didn’t Know About Cacti

Origin of the word cactus, cactus can store water, and able to live for 200 years! Here are 20 facts about cacti that will fascinate you

When growing up, I never thought much about the cactus, other than it’s a hardy desert plant. I love home improvements, and one day, I came across this beautiful photo with a cactus plant as part of home decor. The breathtaking photo is what aroused my curiosity to research more on this plant:

1. Origin of the word cactus

Cactus originates from the Greek name Kaktos. Kaktos is a Spanish artichoke or the “prickly plant of Sicily” as many refer to it in Greece. 

The Greeks used the word cactus to refer to the spiky plant, which they compared to artichoke. However, it later emerged that the plant that they referred to as cactus was actually an artichoke and not a cactus and that the two plants had different characteristics. 

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word originates from the Latin word Cardoon in a classical sense. In 1769, Linnaeus thought that the American prickly cactus that we know today were related to cactal, and named the plant cactus. 

You might have heard that the word “cacti” is the plural for cactus and that, “cactuses” is wrong. Scientific researches, studies, and print media favor the usage of cacti over cactuses. However, most English speakers use cactuses in informal settings. Therefore, both cacti and cactuses are correct, but their usage depends on whether you’re engaging in informal writing or just casual talk. 

2. Cacti can store an unbelievable amount of water in a short time

As you may know, it rarely rains in the desert. When it does rain, the rain is often light, and it may take many months for a desert to experience rainfall again. The desert sun is also extremely hot and dries up rainwater in a very short time.

So how does a cactus survive without water for extended periods? To cope with the dry and hot conditions in the desert, cactus stores plenty of water whenever it rains. 

You might imagine that cacti might have deep roots to enable them to absorb water from deep in the earth. While this may be true for most environments, it’s not the same case for deserts.

Water evaporates pretty fast from the hot desert sun. Therefore, the soil never gets a chance to soak up water and store it below the surface. 

Therefore, the plants have shallow root systems to allow them to absorb as much water as possible. The roots are only 1.3 cm deep, hence it doesn’t take long for the rainwater to reach them for absorption.  

Aside from being shallow, the shallow roots also transverse across large areas. Covering a larger surface area allows the roots to absorb lots of water at a go. 

After absorption, the plant stores gallons of water in its stem making it appear swollen. The desert sand may look dry since it drains fast, but if you want to know if it has recently rained just look at a cactus’s turgidity. 

Cactus stores gallons of water in its stem

3. Cacti stomata only open at night

The cactus will go to extreme lengths to conserve water, and that includes opening its stomata only at night. As you may know, plants open their stomata during the day to serve as a gas intake and exhaling point.

Carbon dioxide intake and oxygen release from the plant is essential for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process that enables plants to produce food and energy their growth and survival.

During photosynthesis, plants transpire and lose a lot of water in the process. During the day, water loss is especially high in deserts where the extremely hot sun. 

Cacti have adopted a concept that scientists refer to as crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM). CAM allows the plants to only open their stomata at night when temperatures are cooler. 

At night, these plants store carbon dioxide and release it during the day for food manufacture. 

During summer, the temperatures are unbelievably hot, and this stresses the plants. During this season, cacti keep their stomata closed both day and night, and this leads to a dormant phase where the plants don’t grow at all. 

4. Cacti have spines instead of leaves

Leaves are an important part of every plant, as they enable it to produce food that is essential for growth and survival. If you’ve ever come into close contact with a cactus plant, you might have wondered how it’s able to survive without leaves. 

A cactus plant has spines instead of leaves, and this is nature’s way to help the plant survive. The spines come in a variety of forms, such as:

  • Awl-like
  • Straight
  • Curved
  • Needle-like
  • Bristle like
  • Hair-like
  • Round
  • Hooked

There are very important reasons why a cactus plant favors the spiky protrusions instead of leaves. The following are the roles that spines play in a cactus plant.

Protection

The desert has plenty of herbivores that depend on different desert plants for food and the cactus is no exception. With its fleshy appearance, the plant is bound to attract different animals, and this is where the spines come in.

Aside from animals, the plants are also under threat from poachers. There’s a lucrative black market for cactus trade, which leads to the destruction of the plants. Repeated destruction of the cactus might eventually lead to extinction. 

Spines act as a defense mechanism for the plant. The needles deeply pierce the skin, upon close contact. A puncture from a spine is extremely painful for any animal to withstand.

The spines are also hard to remove from the skin upon puncture and may cause secondary infections. Some spines can cause multiple injuries in one location. 

Water collection

Spines help to collect water in foggy deserts, and this is how they do it. When the fog lands on the spines, it later turns into the water that trickles down on the ground below. The plant’s roots then absorb this water for storage by the plant.  

Air trapping 

Airflow can lead to water loss, and spines help break the flow of air around a cactus plant. Without the buffer that the spines create, there would be too much water evaporation and the plants would otherwise lose a lot of water.

Shade

The desert climate is extremely hot, and the spines collectively provide shade. Without the shade, the desert sun would soon dry out all the moisture from the plants, and they wouldn’t be able to survive.  

Propagation

Propagation is important for the growth of new plants in the same species. Spines that are blown around by strong desert winds or that pierce animals often find themselves in new locations. The spines then grow into cacti plants which ensures the continuation of life for the plants when the older ones die of old age. 

The spines have important roles in a cactus plant

5. Cacti has waxy surfaces

Plants that grow in humid areas favor surfaces that enable them to easily transpire. Without the ease of release moisture and gases into the environment, these plants would rot and die.

However, it’s the opposite in deserts where the scorching sun and winds quickly lead to moisture loss. Cacti, therefore, use a waxy coating to discourage water loss. 

6. A cactus plant can live for ages

Most houseplants will require constant replacements because they have a short lifespan. If you’re looking for a plant that can survive for decades, you should consider getting a cactus plant.

This plant does not only require minimal care but can outlive the majority of plants. As you may know, there are more than 1500 species of this plant. The average lifespan of a cactus plant is between 10 to 200 years.

However, as much as the plants don’t require your care around the clock, some things may interfere with their survival.

Ensure that you do the following to keep the plants happy, and for years to come:

Watering your plants

Water your plants regularly. Avoid overwatering as this may cause root decay. 

Sufficient lighting

Place your plant in an area with natural lighting. Avoid placing them on window sills for long as this may cause sunburns and discoloration. You might need to alternate between placing them in sunlight and under a shade depending on how hot it is during the day. 

Choose the right soil

Avoid soils that retain water for long, and instead, opt for soils that drain water quickly. Water retention is not good for the plant’s roots and may cause rotting.

Temperatures

Cactus requires optimum temperatures to stay healthy and strong. Many species adapt to different environments, but you have to be careful not to place them in extreme temperatures for lengthy amounts of time. 

During winter and fall, the ideal temperatures would be between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. In summer, the plants do well in temperatures of between 65 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

7. Growing cactus can be a waiting game

Some potted plants take just a matter of weeks to sprout into flowers, but not the cactus. Growing the cactus requires patience. 

The cactus plant grows slower than other plants because it does not contain chlorophyll in leaves. Chlorophyll is present in leaves of most plants and helps in quick food production for plants. 

Due to its adaptations and focusing on conserving water in harsh environments, the plant’s primary focus is on survival rather than reproduction. If the plant had real leaves, it would end up losing a lot of moisture during food production.

If you want to plant a cactus from seedling, here’s what growth phases will look like:

Month 1 

During this period, do not expect much, and focus on observing to see if there’s a seedling emerging from the soil.

Small spines may or may not start emerging from your seedling. 

Give the plant plenty of ventilation and light. Also, water your potted plant when the top one or two inches start getting dry.

Month 6

Your plant at this point could be larger than a marble. This shouldn’t make you nervous. Remember that cactus has retarded growth compared to other plants, so this is perfectly in line. 

Year 1

You are also not likely to see much change by this time. The cactus may still be the same size. Remember to switch the plant from the tray to a larger container, ideally a pot with perorations.

Moving your marble-size plant to a larger container is essential as it encourages growth. If you don’t move your plant, it could take forever to grow, or even worse, die. 

After changing containers, do not expose the young plant to direct sunlight for lengthy amounts of time. Start with a few hours, and then proceed with small increments every day.

Growing cacti

From year 1

Here, you’ll see changes in the plant’s height, although this will be slow. Some plants may bloom after a few years, while others like the saguaro might take up to 35 years before they have their first bloom.  

As you can see, it takes a long time for a seedling to develop into a full-grown cactus plant. If you want quick results, it’s best to get your cactus from a shop that sells cactus plants. Here, you can choose a plant of any age, based on your requirements. 

8. Cacti recruit ants as additional bodyguards

Cactus number one soldier when it comes to keeping away herbivores are the spines. Spine, such as those from the jumping Cholla anchors its needles deep into the offender’s skin upon the slightest provocation. 

Cactus spines do a great job of keeping large animals, including humans away. However, when it comes to smaller animals or critters like mealybugs, the needles cannot effectively get rid of them since they are small enough to slip through the cactus spaces.

The cactus plants produce four types of nectar to attract ants. It’s hot in the desert, and with limited sources of food and water to quench their thirst and hunger, it’s easy for the ants to flock on cactus.

Some species of the plant produce the highly irresistible nectar from the regular spines of modified spines that are blunt to touch. Others have some specialized leaves where the spines originate from, and this is where they produce the ant-friendly substance. 

So what role do the ants play in a cactus life?

  • The ants attack any smaller animals that can easily pass through the spaces on the spines.
  • The ants also attack bacteria and fungi that might otherwise discolor, cause disease, and kill the plants. 

9. Cactus is not always green

Some cacti such as the Gymnocalycium Mihanovichii Friedrichii ‘Rubra, is not primarily green and comes in a variety of colors. The bodies of this mutant species are:

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • White
  • Purplish
  • Orange

So, we know that chlorophyll is green in color, and every plant needs it for growth. How does the Gymnocalycium survive? 

This plant can only survive if you graft it with another cactus plant that produces chlorophyll. With this mutant, you don’t have to use any particular chlorophyll-manufacturing plant; any species will do. 

Cactus is not always green

10. Cacti don’t always grow in the desert

The words cactus and the desert are almost synonymous. True, most cactus plants thrive in the desert climate, but the plant can also grow in other habitats as well. 

Cacti can survive very well in the tropics, and even in snow-clad mountains such as the Alpines. As you may know, the cactus is a highly adaptive plant, and this is capable of adapting to different climates;

Mountainous regions

Mountains environments have harsh weather, and there’s hardly any rainfall. However, the cactus can collect moisture from the snow. The snow falls on the spines and then liquefies into water that the plant’s roots can absorb.

The mountain cactus also has wooly spines that shield them from harsh weather like strong winds and frost. Sometimes, mountains, tops, experience scorching sunlight. The plants in these regions have a waxy coating, to discourage moisture loss. 

Tropical weather

The tropics such as South America have high moisture content. While the temperatures in the desert average 18 degrees centigrade, they range between 20 to 25 degrees centigrade in the tropics and are often accompanied by regular rainfall. 

If you want to successfully grow cacti in the tropics, ensure the following:

  • That you grow your plants in clay containers as opposed to plastic containers. Plastic containers retain water for a longer time, which is detrimental for the plant, considering the environment is humid.
  • Mix your soil base preferably loam soil with compost such as rotted horse manure or leaf mold for nutrition.  
  • Allow the roots to breathe by using either coarse sand, small gravel or perlite
  • Don’t place plants under direct sunlight
  • Water your plants once a week during the summer then once every two or three weeks during all other seasons
  • The tropics are breeding ground for pests like mealybugs or scales. Instead of using harsh insecticides, use insecticidal soap spray as its generally safer for your health, and that of your loved ones  

11. How many flowers can one areole produce?

There’s a common misconception that all cacti cannot produce multiple flowers from one areole. This is true for most cactus species. After producing flowers the areoles become incapable of producing any more flowers.

However, there’s an exception when it comes to the following cacti species, according to this study. 

  • Lepismium cruciforme
  • Rhipsalis russellii
  • P. marginatus
  • Myrtillocactus
  • P. schottii 

12. Water straight out of a cactus plant isn’t palatable

You might have heard that if you ever get lost in the desert without any water to drink, you can quench your thirst by extracting water from a cactus.  Well, the plant can store gallons of water, but this water isn’t palatable.

The water isn’t poisonous, but it contains acids and alkaloids whose taste is bitter. The water would probably overwork and harm your kidneys since they have to clean out the acids before releasing the water into your bloodstream.

The plant uses the tactic of having acrid water probably to discourage animals from using it as a source of water. Otherwise, the plant would be extinct in the desert environment where every animal needs water.

13.  It’s possible to differentiate between Christmas cactus and Thanksgiving

Most plants produce identical flowers. Not for the Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus. The blooms from the two plants may look similar in appearance to the untrained eye, but a professional can easily tell them apart.

Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are from the Schlumbergera Cactus family. The cacti have gorgeous flowers that bloom when most plants only have green vegetation, and that’s why they’re popular around the holidays. The flowers from these plants are dominant from November to around a new year.

Although the two are popular around the holidays, they can also grow all-year-round. It’s not uncommon to find Christmas thanksgiving cacti growing in different months of the year, in indoor environments where one can use artificial light.

Here’s how to tell them apart

  • The Christmas cactus has flattened stem segments while Thanksgiving cactus has claw-like stem segments
  • Christmas cactus blooms hang down the plant, while the thanksgiving ones appear more erect

14. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti

To most people, any succulent is a cactus. Understandably so, because some succulents closely resemble the plant. It gets even more confusing when people use cactus and succulents interchangeably.

Although cactus is a succulent, it’s scientifically wrong to use the terms interchangeably. It’s paramount to learn to tell the difference, especially if you plan to get the plants into your home.

Being able to tell them apart will help you make an informed decision when making purchases. Making the right choice is vital if you have pets and little kids at home because some succulents are toxic.

Every plant needs care, whether minimal or specialized. It, therefore, helps to know your plants well, because this enables you to personalize your attention to a particular species.

All succulents store large amounts of water in their roots, stems or leaves, and this is a quality that cacti have. The majority of succulents have thorns, and this is why people assume that they are cacti. 

The main distinguishing feature between cacti and other succulents is that cactus plants have areoles. Areoles are openings on the cactus plants where spines and flowers sprout from.

15. Blooming is not a given for this plant

The cactus is a flowering plant. However, some aspects surrounding your environment and care practices could determine whether your plant blooms or not. 

Some cacti may bloom after a few years, while others might take up to 35 years before they have their first bloom 

In short:

  • Some cacti will produce gorgeous flowers
  • Others will not bloom until they’re over 30 years 
  • There is that cactus that will never bloom at all

The following are things that can affect your cactus blooming behavior:

  • Lighting
  • Fertilization
  • Watering
  • Planting method (Whether from seed or rooting a branch)
  • Temperature

16. Cactus comes in varying sizes and shapes

Cacti come in different shapes and sizes. Some are just a few inches tall, while others get up to 66 inches in height. 

Examples of cactus and their sizes

  • Opuntia microdasys (Bunny ears cactus) –  grows up to 3 feet. 
  • When exposed to light produces purple fruits and white flowers.  
  • Astrophytum asteria (Star cactus) – between 2 to 6 inches
  • Resembles a sea urchin, and is covered by white dots and white hairs. 
  • Pachycereus schottii monstrosus (Totem pole cactus) – grows up to 12 feet high
  • Has a wrinkled texture and resembles a tall structure

17. Cactus can be a source of food

Ancient communities in Mexico and Peru used cactus as a source of food. Researchers date cactus existence in the communities as far back as 12000 years ago. Hunters and gatherers collected the cactus fruits which they brought back to their camps for food. 

In modern times, cactus fruits have become popular for their psychoactive agents. The agents are beneficial to the brain, as they promote increased cognitive performance. It’s, for this reason, some species like the Indian Fig are popular in herbal medicine.

18. These plants can take a bit of neglect

Most plants will just die off at the slightest sign of neglect. Believe it or not, but it’s possible to revive a cactus that has gone without water for months, just by watering it. 

The cactus is one of those plants that don’t need your constant care. This is, therefore, a great choice for novice gardeners or busy people that don’t have time for plant care.

19. You can grow these plants in different containers

You can grow a cactus in a clay pot, plastic container, on the ground, window boxes or tray. Just ensure that your container and soil type drain easily. 

Also, choose your container depending on your environment. Plastic containers are ok with dry climates areas, while clay pots are better for wet areas.

Choose your container depending on your environment and cactus size

20.  Don’t dare vandalize a cactus

Cactus can grow up to six stories tall, and so you can imagine the weight. In 1982, a man in Arizona tried to destroy a cactus by repeatedly shooting at it. The plant eventually fell on him and killed him instantly. 

This particular cactus was a saguaro and measured 27 feet tall. 

If you fear that such a cactus might topple over and damage your property, it’s best to call the wildlife service to deal with such issues. Such departments know how to safely eliminate cactus without causing any harm to you, your loved ones, property or environment.

There is no shortage of surprising qualities from cacti. These plants can survive in hostile environments where the majority of other plants never could.  The plants also come in a variety of forms, and their gorgeous blooms are attractive, the reason why they’ve become popular as potted plants in many homes.

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