7 Cool Facts about Cactus You Didn’t Know About!

Cacti are frugal survivors. We know this. That you can make music with them, get intoxicated with them, build furniture out of them, probably not. Cacti – our topic today. And here are seven cool facts about cactus you – maybe – did not know about.

cool facts about cactus
“Cactaceae” by iocto is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

7 Cool Facts about Cactus

Cactus Fact #1: The Thorns are Actually Spines

What we commonly refer to as thorns in the cactus are actually spines: real organs of the plant, namely leaves. At least that's how it used to be.In the course of evolution, spines have developed from this, which ensure the cacti survival even under the most extreme living conditions.

According to Wikipedia, botanically, “spines” are distinguished from “thorns”: spines are modified leaves, and thorns are modified branches.

interesting facts about cactuses
“Cactus thorns” by thaths is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Cactus Fact #2: The Spines are Weapons, Sun Protection, Drinking Straw and Coat

In their barren habitats, cacti would literally be found food for animals. Their spines prevent this. But they can do a lot more: They reflect sunlight and thus protect the plant from sunburn. On the other hand, they keep out the cold on icy nights. Clouds of mist condense on the spines to form water, which the cactus can then absorb. They also get caught in the fur of animals that pass by. Elsewhere they fall out, and a new cactus can grow. So they also help with the propagation.

Cactus Fact #3: Cacti are Musical

At least their spines. The largest specimens were previously used as gramophone needles.

Cactus Fact #4: You Can Eat Them

You can get the orange-red fruits of the prickly pear from the genus Opuntia in every delicatessen store. But the green parts of the plant are also edible. Steamed or fried, they become a sour, tasty vegetable. The oldest cactus cultivation in the world, which has existed in Erfurt since 1685, shows what can be conjured up from the thorny plants and put on the table.

Cactus Fact #5: One Can Get Intoxicated with Them

The Native Americans discovered 3,000 years ago that some species of cactus were intoxicating. They chewed pieces of the plants, believing they were closer to the gods. The best known is certainly the peyote cactus, which contains mescaline. Louis Lewin first approached this phenomenon scientifically in 1888. He examined the peyote cactus and was able to extract a substance called “anhalonin”. In 1896 Arthur Heffter was able to isolate the pure substance mescaline. Ernst Späth achieved the first total synthesis in 1919. With this he laid the basis for the synthetic production of the intoxicant. Since 1971 it has been declared illegal worldwide by the UN Convention. In the USA, mescaline possession is imprisonment for up to five years.

Cactus Fact #6: You Can't Drink It

The idea that a cactus can quench thirst in the desert came from the pen of adventure writers. All you find when you cut open a cactus is a thick gel that you can't drink. Extracting water from it on site is just as impossible as trying to extract water from a shower gel.

Cactus Fact #7: You Can Make Furniture Out of Them

Parts of the cacti can become woody over time. Column cacti in particular form large woody segments. This cactus wood has many advantages: It has no knotholes, it grew very straight. Due to its fiber structure, which is interspersed with cavities, it is flexible and yet very stable. Furniture from this wood has only been made in Latin America so far. In this country you will find toys for birds and reptiles that are kept as pets.

desert cactus facts
“Cactus wood” by Annelieke B is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why do cactus have thorns?

A cactus wouldn't be a cactus without thorns (spines). With the exception of a few species, such as the Opuntia inamoena, they have spines. Sometimes very large and visible, sometimes so small that it looks just like hair. But why does a cactus actually have spines?

  • Protection against animals – Cacti are known to require little water. They can absorb water and hold it for a long period of time. This makes the plant a source of moisture for various animals. The spines of a cactus serve as protection against such animals. Without this protection, any cactus, especially in the most arid regions such as the desert, would fall prey to animals trying to replenish their moisture reserves.
  • Temperature – Spines that are somewhat smaller in nature also protect against temperature differences by reflecting sunlight or by serving as insulation against cold. Yes really, against the cold! We are used to seeing cacti in very hot areas such as the desert, but it can also get very cold there at night. If the mercury easily rises to 45 degrees Celsius during the day, it can cool down to well below freezing at night. Cacti must be able to survive in these extreme extremes and spines help.

Have you been pricked by a cactus spine and want to know how to remove it safely? Check out our post on removing cactus needles from the skin.

2. Why are cactus stems usually very thick?

The reason why cacti have the title of “succulents” is the thick stem, it is this that has the ability to store liquid. It is known that in some species the water values ​​in the stem can reach up to 90% of the plant's weight. This varies depending on the availability of humidity in the environment, which changes the shape of the cactus.

They can bulge to the point that some typical features or channels almost disappear, as in the case of the Cereus species, or become strongly marked when the precious liquid is scarce. In fact, this loss or gain can occur in a localized way so as not to affect the entire plant. You can have a Cactus with branches that are more hydrated than others.

3. What are the benefits of cactus plant in home?

There is a belief that cacti do not beautify spaces and bring bad luck by generating negative energy. But quite the opposite! Cacti are one of the plants of choice for decoration and to attract good vibes to homes.

The belief that they bring bad luck stems, in part, from Feng Shui, a Chinese philosophy that teaches to organize spaces to improve vital energy. It states that cactus thorns can break the harmony of a space and attract bad energies.

According to this philosophy, cacti must be only in outdoor spaces; that is, on terraces and patios so that all negative energy stays away from home.

Any internal area such as rooms, bathrooms, rooms, studios, etc., should not shelter any cacti, as the energy will become tense and the people who come into contact will feel exhausted, overwhelmed and in a bad mood.

Although Feng Shui has many followers worldwide, these assertions have no scientific support. Some people claim to feel a lack of tranquility since they kept cacti, while others claim that they have not experienced any problems or “bad energy” as a result of adopting these plants.

Among the benefits of cactus plant in home are:

  • They give “life” to spaces – It is always more pleasant to work or stay in areas that are pleasing to the eye and these thorny plants harmoniously complement the places where we spend most of our time.
  • They serve as decoration elements – The green color of the cactus in combination and / or contrast with walls, furniture or bookcases, will provide a quite harmonious and original environment.
  • They are easy to carry – The vast majority of home decoration cacti are small and very easy to transport. This allows us to modify the distribution of our furniture and give a fresh air to our sight to get out of the daily routine. This is very good for your mind and health!
  • They don't need much care – There are no more perfect plants than cacti, for those people who love vegetation but are too careless to keep them.
  • They purify the air – All plants have an important task of purifying air by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. Well, cacti are not exempt from these qualities and they do very well.
  • They protect your health – Having cacti near computers helps reduce radiation from electromagnetic rays and frequencies, providing important protection to our health. So if you work long hours in front of a computer, cacti are a very good choice.
what are the benefits of cactus plant in home

4. Are cactus poisonous to humans?

The truth, is that they do not exist. There are no poisonous cacti. What there are are hallucinogenic cacti, such as those of the genus Lophophora or Trichocereus pachanoi, which if consumed in excess will cause many health problems. But poisonous cacti like those of poisonous plants such as oleander or castor bean, we will not find.

That being said, the Euphorbia, which looks like a cactus, is a poisonous succulent. In the Indian Journal of Ophthalmology, it says: “The milky sap or latex of Euphorbia plant is highly toxic and an irritant to the skin and eye.”

succulent that looks like a cactus
The Euphorbia, is not a cactus but a toxic succulent

5. Are prickly pears poisonous?

Prickly pear or nopal – however these special opuntias are called, they are anything but poisonous. On the contrary, the fleshy shoots and fruits are edible and a traditional food in Mexico. The fruits can be eaten raw, the green segments when cooked. But caution is advised of the spines, which must be removed by careful peeling. If they penetrate the skin, severe irritation and inflammation are often the unsightly consequences.

6. How long does a cactus live?

There are many different species of cacti, they can reach more than 1,500 and they are normally long-lived plants depending on the species. The life span of cacti varies between 10 to 200 years, depending on the species.

Cacti grown outdoors in their natural habitat tend to live longer than those grown as indoor plants. However, with good care, many indoor cacti can live for many decades.

The longest-lived cactus is believed to be the Saguaro cactus, which is native to the desert of Arizona and Mexico. That longevity is not a trait of all cactus species.

Researchers have conducted demographic studies of various types of cacti to try to determine how long they live. It is known how long some cacti such as:

  • Cephalocereus columnatrajani can live up to 145 years.
  • Neobuxbaumia macrocephala can live up to 200 years.
  • Escobaria robbinsorum lives an average of 17 years.

Certainly much longer than other plant species.

7. How much water is in a cactus?

Many cacti can soak up their own weight with water. The cactus could then live without water for up to 12 weeks.

8. How do cacti photosynthesize?

The cacti have come up with a special feature for photosynthesis because the “normal” Calvin Cycle uses a lot of water. In this cycle the stomata are open during the day to absorb carbon dioxide (CO²) .

The CAM cycle is used for cacti. CAM means Crassulacean Acid Metabolism and therefore is the fact that these photosynthetic pathway was first discovered in the Crassulaceae. However, the CAM cycle was developed independently by several plant families.

In the CAM cycle, the stomata are opened at night, because at this time the evaporation is not as high as during the day due to the lower temperatures and higher humidity. Since the plant cannot photosynthesize at night due to the lack of sunlight, the carbon dioxide has to be stored. This is done by an enzyme that is stored in malic acid. During the day, the malic acid is broken down again and the CO² is released in the plant cell.

This way of photosynthesis can save over 90% of the water consumption. However, it also needs more energy than the “normal” photosynthesis path. A plant with the Calvin Cycle path would grow faster with sufficient water and sunlight than a CAM plant under the same conditions.

There are also some exceptions with cacti. For example in Rhipsalis and Epiphyllum, both genera can switch between the photosynthesis pathways. The Pereskia genus operates the Calvin Cycle on its leaves and the CAM path on the trunk bark.

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