An Overview of the Cactaceae Botanical Family

The cactus family is an ancient botanical family which is native to dry, desert regions of the Americas; the Cactaceae plant family includes many familiar cacti.

The Cactaceae plant family is a botanical family of over 2,000 species of cacti, some of which are more familiar than others. Members of the cactus family are native to the dry, desert regions of Central and South America, although southern North American states such as Arizona, California and Texas have many cacti too. In addition, cacti are now found in other dry, desert regions of the world including Australia, East Africa and the southern Mediterranean region.

Identifying the Cactus Family

Cacti grow as trees, shrubs or vines; some species of cacti are epiphytes. Many cacti have ‘spines’, although ‘spines’ are actually the leaves of the plant, which have evolved to survive the environment. Many cacti ‘spines’ preserve and protect the evaporation of water from the plant. Cacti often have colorful blooms which flower at various times of the year. Cacti grow in all shapes and sizes.

How Cacti Survive With No Water

Cacti grow in dry, desert areas where rainfall is minimal; consequently, many cacti are xerophytes (a plant able to survive with little or no water) and/or succulents. Cacti maintain water through Crassulacean acid metabolism; Crassulacean acid metabolism is a process which takes place at night and stores carbon dioxide for release during the day, unlike the traditional process of photosynthesis. This process reduces potential water loss for cacti.

Uses of Cacti as Food and Medicine

Cacti are an ancient plant species which have been utilized for food and medicine by early natives such as the Native Americans and later by Hispanic pioneers to the Americas. Some cacti possess hallucinogenic properties, so it is important to identify cacti species correctly. The fruit and the seeds of cacti were eaten as food, in particular the species of Opuntia.

Common Cacti of the Cactus Family

Some of the common cacti family members include:

desert Christmas cactus (Opuntia leptocaulis) – not to be confused with the Christmas cactus
agave cactus (Leuchtenbergia principis)
barrel cactus (Ferocactus echinocactus)
saguaro (Carnegia giganta)
rose cactus (Pereskia grandifolia)
prickly pear (Opuntia)
ocotillo (Fouquiera splendens)
mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera).

The Cactaceae Family

The cactus family is an ancient and fascinating group of plants which has evolved to survive the often harsh environment in which cacti grow. Many cacti species were taken back to Europe when explorers began ‘discovering’ the Americas and today cacti plants can be found in greenhouses and homes throughout Europe. However, cacti have the greatest chance of survival in their native surroundings and are a common sight across the deserts of the Americas.

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