Cacti: brief description

Before you fully enter in matter of Cactaceae (hereinafter cacti), we make a small clarification to Facilitate the understanding to our visitors.

The word cactus (cacti) is derived from the Greek word kaktos that comes to mean thorny plant. This term is used regardless of the family that is, to refer to all plants that have thorns. For years to refer to these plants we talk of it as cactaceae, so all cactaceae are cacti, but not all cacti are cactaceae. Those belonging to another family, without being cactaceae are called “cactiform” ; put an example: the euphorbia echinus, a Euphorbiacea, is a cactus but it doesn't belongs to the family of cacti, therefore it is a cactiform.

This family is almost exclusive of the american continent, except a kind of rhipsalis (rhipsalis baccifera) which has been found in Africa and Asia. According to one theory, the seeds were transported in the craw of migratory birds or, acording to another theory, plant or part of it was carried on planks of wood floating in the ocean and dragged by ocean currents.

The family of cacti consists of about 200 genera and 2000 species, ranging from Canada to Patagonia. While they are typical of arid regions, are also found in rainforests and temperate-humid areas, with the areas of greatest density of species in the tropics, Mexico with 823 species and 48 genera is the country with the highest number of species present, without forgetting Argentina which has 300 species and 36 genera. We can find cacti from coastal areas up to 4,000-5,000 meters high, having got of all sizes, from which they hardly out of the ground, as Lophophora williamsii, to others that reach heights of 20 feet or more, as pachycereus pringlei or carnegiea gigantea. As usual present three different ways, "columnar" as listed above in "barrel-shaped" as bisnagas and "flattened" as cactus (Opuntia). Apart from these three ways, we can find cacti type "vine" as the hylocereus undatus , or "creeping" and "winding" as lamprochlora echinopsis. These plants have had and continue to have great importance in their places of origin, especially in tribal and indigenous peoples, for example, Mexico. In this country the indigenous people use them for many things such as:

  • As food.- Of the Cactus everything is usable, but there are things that are used more than others. The stems of some genu such as opuntia (prickly pear), acanthocereus,melocactus, echinocactus, etc, are edible and especially the young stems of opuntia genera (the cactus or nopales) are widely used in traditional Mexican cuisine under the name of "cactus". The leaves, which few species of this family possess, are also eaten as the "cactus" leaves found in pereskia and pereskiopsis genera. The flowers are all edible but generally little used, except the petals and flowers in some species as opuntia, myrtillocactus, ferocactus prey.

  • To the latter genera belongs the ferocactus pilosus "red bisnaga" with flower buds that are comercialized under the name of "cabuches". The most profitable part of the cactus is the fruit, all are edible and some are very typical in the market. There are several genres that are commonly exploited for growing fruits such as opuntia, hylocereus, escontria, etenocereus, pachycereus, myrtillocactus, ferocactus, the best known is the genera Opuntia.

  • As fodder.- The leaves of the prickly pear (Opuntia), the stems of some organs and cacti (pachycereus marginatus and pachycereus pringlei) and stems of some bisnagas (Echinocactus and ferocactus) are widely used as fodder. Despite the poor nutritional value of these stems, it has been found that cattle in the field can sometimes survive during the great drought feeding on cactus taking advantage of the large aquifer content.

  • As medicine.- The first news about the medicinal uses of Cactaceae, is given by Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes (1535), who describes the use of a cereus to treat broken bones. In folk medicine is frequently used pachycereus pecten-aboriginum stems, not only as dressings to soothe rheumatic and traumatic pain, or to relieve inflammatory processes, but also as a remedy for stomach cancer. The "sina" (pachycereus schottii) is used against gastric ulcer. Ultimately the Cactaceae have antibiotic, anti-diabetic, etc. These properties are not only used in the countries of origin of these plants but also used in countries where such plants have become naturalized, as in South Africa.
  • Other uses of cactaceae.- In addition to being used as food and medicine, cacti have many other utilities, namely as protector of the soil (stop erosion), as building material, especially the columnar, which once dried, they are lightweight and highly resistant, very suitable for walls and ceilings of rustic houses, fertilizer, fuel, as boundary to delineate farms, for handicrafts in developing canes, foot lamps, picture frames and mirrors , furniture, etc.

Although there are many books that we can find on the cacti, highlight some scholars and authors who have conducted research (some lifelong) on this family of cactus. Namely, Britton and Rose stand with his work "The Cactaceae", which is considered a masterpiece. Progress on the study of the cactus comes from the decade of 80, by the means that science makes available to botanists and scholars of this family include David Hunt (1938), which has published several editions of his "Cites Cactaceae Checklist" (in 1992 and 1999), also in 2006 (with considerable controversy in the world of botany) published "The New Cacti Lexicon". Another important author was Edward Anderson, for his work "The Cactus Family2" (2001). Currently, there are many botanists who study the cacti, the aforementioned David Hunt, Roberto Kisling, Nigel Taylor or Joel Lodel who have recently visited The Cactus garden. Special mention deserves what has been a benchmark in terms of cacti and devoted his life to studying these and from which we learned a lot, we refer to the teacher Helia Bravo Hollis (1901-2001), who with his partner Hernando Sánchez-Mejorada published the work "The Cactaceae of Mexico", the only work in Castilian relevant on this matter.

The Garden.- The design and botanical diversity of the Garden make him one of the most unique gardens, as a benchmark within the world of cacti. It houses some 13 families of plants with about 98 genera. Among these families highlights the Cactaceae, the largest with about 900 genera and about 64 species.





























Apart from its botanical value, the Garden, also serves as a rest area for migratory birds like lavateras, trumpeters, bee-eaters, herons, egrets, which together with the species seen here throughout the year, such as sparrows, menders, kestrels , shrikes or leathery lizards, offer visitors a picturesque illustration.


Antonio Martín