All about Cactus (Opuntia) – History, Meaning, Facts, Care & More

Cactus or Opuntia is a genus of the cactus family, Cactaceae. Also known as prickly pear, cactus is a large genus of about 150-180 species of cacti that are native to America and other regions of the New World. There are many species of Opuntia that include the commonly cultivated O. ficus-indica, commonly named as the Indian fig of Mexico. These are the invasive species in Australia, South Africa and other regions. Many of the species have the ability to adapt themselves to the surviving drought.

Facts about Cactus (Opuntia)

Cactus is known for surviving extremely hot and dry weather conditions and can store massive amounts of water. Here are some interesting facts about cactus –

  • There are about 2000 different cactus species, which differ in shape, size, colour and habitat types.
  • The size of the cactus depends on its species. The largest ones can reach up to heights of 66 feet, and when fully loaded with water, can weigh up to 4800 pounds. The smallest cactus species are usually just a few inches tall.
  • Cactus can be green, brown-green, red, yellow, purplish or bluish, white, or orange in colour.
  • Just like other plants, cacti too, are involved in the process of photosynthesis as they possess chlorophyll and product sugar by combining water with carbon dioxide.
  • Water from the cactus species has a higher density as compared to tap water. Moreover, it is safe to drink cactus water.
  • Depending on the species, a cactus can live from 15-300 years.
  • The tallest cactus ever recorded are over 6 stories tall.
  • Dragon Fruits come from a species of cactus.
  • Cactus plants have specific acoustic properties, which means that you can actually play one.
  • Cacti don’t always grow in desert regions. They can thrive quite well in the tropics, and some of them can even survive in the snowy mountains, like the Alpines.

History of Cactus (Opuntia)

Cactus or Opuntia is named after the Ancient Greek city, Opus. According to Theophrastus, a successor to Aristotle, an edible plant grew, which was propagated by rooting its leaves. It is also sometimes known to have occurred from the Peace River situated in western Canada. However, exact dates cannot be traced since there are no proper fossil fuels of cactus.

Cactus has long been domesticated and is grown in various agricultural economies across arid and semiarid regions of the world. Cactus is an American plant, which is not native to Africa, Europe and Australia. The oldest cactus species is probably found in Utah, and it dates back to about 50 million years ago. It is similar to the prickly pear of today.

Characteristic of Cactus (Opuntia)

Cactus or Opuntia species are erect and spreading plants that range from small and low-growing shrubs to even larger trees, reaching heights of up to 5 metres or more. The cacti are composed of large fleshy stems with spikes and have a thick wavy skin. They have flat joints, along with paddlelike photosynthetic stem segments, known as cladodes, which arise one from the end of the other.

While some species reproduce sexually, others reproduce asexually. One can easily root the paddles for cultivation.

  • Succulent Stems – The ‘succulent’ in botany refers to drought-tolerant trees or plants, which have specialised tissues modified for storing water. A vast majority of cacti species are succulents and are adapted to live in the hot and arid areas and are native to North and South America. The Opuntia stores water in their stems, rather than the leaves.
  • Leaves – The plant lacks leaves, which is another characteristic of the water-preserving cacti, since leaves tend to lose a lot of water due to their larger surface area. Only a few cactus species possess true leaves, especially those belonging to the tropical genus Pereskia. These leafy-type cactus species also have non-succulent stems.
  • Spines – Normally, most of the cactus species have sharp spines rather than leaves. Spines are modified leaves that protect the water-filled juicy stems from being consumed by thirsty desert animals. The spines can be rigid or soft, or straight or curved. They can either be arranged in rows or can be scattered. Spines can reach lengths of up to 6 inches.
  • Cuticle – As typical of most succulent plants, cactus too, possesses a thick and waxy outer covering called the cuticle. The cuticle of some species is thick enough for one to scratch off the wax with fingernails. However, loss of wax can damage a cactus. The role of the cuticle is to store water inside the plant and prevent it from evaporating outside. It also protects the plant from harmful germs and other agents, which may try to invade into the skin of the plant.
  • Flowers – Cacti have showy flowers that are generally yellow, orange or pink in colour. These flowers have several feature stamens, which move in response to external stimuli like touch. This trait is believed to be increasing the pollen load of insects or other pollinators. Bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and bats are the primary pollinators of a cactus.
  • Fruits – The fruit of the cactus plant looks typically like a reddish berry that is often accompanied by spines.
  • Roots – The cactus species have shallow and widespread roots that can reach about 7 feet in diameter. This is because water can easily pass through sand.

Use of Cactus (Opuntia)

Cactus finds a widespread usage as food consumption, fodder, production of folk medicine and for the prevention of soil erosion. Let’s have a look at some of the various uses of cactus.

  • The Indian fig or ficus-indica is grown for its edible fruits as well as paddles. In many parts of the world, cactus is eaten raw as it contains the highest amounts of Vitamin C compared to any fruit. Cactus leaves are cooked and consumed as vegetables.
  • The spines of a cactus plant can be used to produce hooks, needles and combs.
  • Some species produce a substance known as mescaline, which induces trans-like states or hallucinogenic effects. This has been used by shamans to ensure the establishment of communication with God.
  • It is used as a fresh source of fodder for cattle and is cultivated for this purpose by the cattle industry of the Southwest United States.
  • Cactus plants are planted in hedges and are used to prevent soil erosion, especially in the Mediterranean basin.
  • Cactus can be used as an ingredient while producing adobe, which is used to waterproof and bind roofs.
  • Some cactus species, like the ficus-indica, are used as host plants for cochineal insects. These insects are then used to produce red and purple dyes.
  • A thick and gluey substance from prickly pears, known as Mucilage, is used as a non-toxic and natural dispersant for oil spills.
  • Cactus (Opuntia) comprises a number of phytochemicals in several quantities, which include dietary minerals, polyphenols and betalains. As per the practices of Mexican folk medicine, the pulp and juice of the Sicilian prickly pear are considered as treatments for various wounds. It is also used to treat the inflammation of the digestive system and the urinary tracts.
  • Bioethanol, which is used as fuel, can be produced from some species of cactus.
  • Nopal juice from cactus can be used for producing bioplastics.

Cactus (Opuntia) Flower Meaning

  • In some cultures, like the North American, it is believed that cactus is a symbol of protection, warmth and motherly love. Since cactus plants can survive harsh temperatures and weather conditions, it has become a symbol of unconditional love.
  • In Feng Shui, keeping cactus at home is believed to protect you from negative energies and misfortune.
  • Keeping a cactus at work or home would remind you to stay strong and realise that your real beauty comes from within.
  • Cactus is considered a symbol of endurance and longevity. It is also seen as a sign of uniqueness, inner beauty and good health.
  • Cactus flowers can also represent lustful desires and physical attraction between two people. However, in many Western cultures, cactus is regarded as a symbol of chastity due to the presence of spines.
  • The bright red cactus flower is often used for gifting purposes.
  • The yellow and white flowers of some cacti evoke feelings of endurance and strength.
  • The orange and pink varieties, on the other hand, carry a meaning of youthfulness and vigour.

How to Care For Cactus (Opuntia)

To make your cactus survive for years, here’s what you should do –

  • Water your cactus regularly. However, you must also avoid overwatering as it may cause root decay.
  • Give sufficient lighting to your plant and place it under natural light. Never place them on window sills for too long as it would cause sunburns and hence, discolouration. Alternate placing your cactus between sunlight and shade, depending on the temperature outside during the day.
  • Choosing the right soil for your plant is essential. You must avoid those soils that retain water for too long. Instead, go for soils that would drain water quickly.
  • Even though various species of cactus can adapt to live in various temperatures, you have to take care not to place your plant in extreme temperatures for too long. During the winter, the optimum temperature for a cactus to survive is between 45-55° Fahrenheit and during the summer, it is between 65-95° Fahrenheit.

You must also keep in mind that cactus is not like other potted plants, which can sprout into flowers within weeks. It takes time and patience to grow a cactus into a strong and healthy plant.