Fossil evidence suggests that cacti have been part of the human diet for more than 9,000 years. The first cacti were introduced to Europeans by Christopher Columbus in the mid-15th century. In the 17th century, plant study became a fascination and interest in cacti dramatically peaked. The cactus got its name from Carolus Linnaeus, a botanist who created a universal system of plant names in Latin and Greek. His first choice for the prickly plant was the Greek word “kaktos,” meaning thistle. The English translation of that word is “cactus.” There are over 2,500 species of cactus recognized today. Although people have taken cactus seeds all over the world, these exotic plants originated in the Americas.
The Aztec Indians founded the capital of their empire on a spot where they saw an eagle perched on top of a large cactus. That scene is now on the flag of Mexico. Native Americans had a myriad of uses for the cactus, many of which were ceremonial. Cacti were used to start and stop rainfall or wind, to assist in burial, and even to place curses. Native Americans used cacti to make arrow shafts, shampoo, jewelry, brushes, wine, and face paint. They made the fruits and cooked flesh of many cacti a foundation of their diet, and used the fibers of the Agave plant to make clothes, mats, bags, baskets, sandals, rope, twine, bracelets, musical instruments, saddle pads, blankets, and even paper.
Cacti are used as sources of not only food, drink, and medicine, but for making sealants, caulking, building materials, and toys as well. One use is to produce Cochineal, a natural red dye used in the cosmetics industry in making lipstick. It was this dye that colored the uniform of the British military, earning them the name “Redcoats.” One type of cactus, the Prickly Pear (Opuntia) was used for cattle fodder. In Australia, ranchers planted it for that purpose – the plant did so well that it overran an area the size of Connecticut.
Cacti are stem succulents, a family of plants whose specialized anatomy allows them to survive severe drought conditions by storing water in the fleshy tissue of their stems, leaves, and roots. In order to be classified as a cactus, a specimen must meet four requirements: it must be a perennial, it must be a dicotyledon (possessing a two-leafed embryo), it must produce single-celled fruit, and it must have an areole, the unique characteristic of the cactus variety. The areole is a modified auxillary bud from which all growth takes place, including side branches, flowers, and spines. Cacti can be further divided into two categories: desert and rainforest.
Water is stored in the stem of the cactus, aided by flexible ribs which can expand and contract according to the amount of intake and use. Like the ribs and stem, spines help shade the body of the cactus from the sun and protect it from animals looking to access the plant’s water supply. Some cacti store up to 1,000 gallons of water, making them a valuable resource in their often arid climates. Although their bloom is often as brief as one day, cactus flowers are colorful and beautiful.
On the evolutionary scale, cacti are a fairly recent development. Yet with over twenty species on the endangered list – more than any other plant family – their value and beauty has proven to be unique and lasting.