The Prickly Plant: Cactus
When you think of cactus, the first image that likely comes to mind is a round, green plant covered in sharp spines standing tall in a desert landscape.
While this iconic imagery isn't wrong, it hardly does justice to the incredible diversity and usefulness of the cactus family. Let's take a closer look at these amazing succulents.

The Mighty Functions of Cactus

Cacti are marvels of adaptation and efficiency. Their specialized stems perform photosynthesis while their thick, wax-coated bodies and lack of leaves help reduce water loss in hot, arid climates. Those prickly spines aren't just for show - they provide shade, protection from herbivores, and even help collect water from fog and dew.
Many species also grow remarkably deep root systems, allowing them to absorb any moisture available underground. And when water is abundant, cacti can expand like an accordion to store it in their fleshy, moisture-filled stems until the dry spells return.

Uses for the Versatile Cactus

While cacti provide important habitat, food, and shelter for desert wildlife, humans have also found endless uses for these resilient plants throughout history. In Mexico and parts of the American Southwest, the pads (nopales) and fruit (prickly pears) of certain species like the nopal cactus are eaten as nutrient-rich vegetables and made into dishes, drinks, candies, and more.
Medicinally, cacti have been used for centuries to treat ailments ranging from fatigue to rheumatism to insomnia. Some Native American tribes even used the spines for tattooing and the bright red cochineal insects that live on the plants as a natural dye. Industrially, cacti can be made into biodegradable and renewable resources like biofuels, biomaterials, and biofertilizers.

Learn More About Cactus

There's no shortage of books and documentaries exploring the fascinating world of cacti:
- The Cactus Handbook by Erik Haustein

AMAZING Cacti and Succulents (World's Most Spectacular Plants episode 11 of 14)

Video by Redfern Natural History Productions

- Cacti: An Illustrated Guide to Varieties, Cultivation and Care by Terry Hewitt
- "Cactus: Hidden Desert Lifeline" from National Geographic Wild (2012)
- "Planet Earth: The Making of a Desert" episode from Planet Earth II (2016)

Tips for Growing Cactus at Home

With their low maintenance needs and striking forms, cacti make for wonderful houseplants. Here are some tips for success:
- Use a fast-draining potting mix designed for cacti and succulents.
- Allow the soil to fully dry out between waterings. Overwatering is a common pitfall.
- Provide bright, direct sunlight for at least 6 hours per day. A sunny, south or west-facing window is ideal.
- Most cacti go dormant in winter and need very little water during this time.
- Use a dwarf or small variety for easy indoor growing.
- Always handle cactus with thick gloves or tongs to avoid the painful spines.
From their incredible adaptations for desert survival to their myriad uses by people and wildlife, cacti are truly miraculous plants worthy of our appreciation. With some basic care, you can enjoy the unique beauty of these spiny succulents in your home or garden. Just watch out for those sharp spines!