The word cactus derived from Greek Κακτος-kaktos used in classical Greek for a species of spiny thistle, possibly the cardoon, and used as a generic name by Linnaeus in 1753 (now rejected in favor of Mammillaria). As a word in Botanical Latin (as distinct from Classical Latin), "cactus" follows standard Latin rules for pluralization and becomes "cacti", which has become the prevalent usage in English.
The cacti are spine plants that grow either as trees, shrubs or in the form of ground cover. Most species grow on the ground, but there is also a whole range of epiphytic species. In most species, except for the sub-family of the Pereskioideae, the leaves are greatly or entirely reduced. The flowers, mostly radially symmetrical and hermaphrodite, bloom either by day or by night, depending on species. Their shape varies from tube-like through bell-like to wheel-shaped, and their size from 0.2 to 15-30 centimeters. Most of them have numerous sepals (from 5 to 50 or more), and change form from outside to inside, from bracts to petals. They have stamens in great numbers (from 50 to 1,500, rarely fewer). Nearly all species of cacti have a bitter sometimes milky sap contained within them. The berry-like fruits may contain few, but mostly many (3,000), seeds, which can be between 0.4 and 12 mm long.
The life of a cactus is seldom longer than 300 years, and there are cacti which live only 25 years (although these flower as early as their second year). The Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) grows to a height of up to 15 meters (the record is 17 meters 67cm), but in its first ten years it grows only 10 centimeters. The "mother-in-law's cushion" (Echinocactus grusonii) reaches a height of 2.5 meters and a diameter of 1 meter and - at least on the Canaries - is already capable of flowering after 6 years. The diameter of cactus flowers ranges from 5 to 30 cm; the colors are often conspicuous and spectacular.
Distribution Cacti are almost exclusively New World plants. This means that they are native only in North America, South America, and the West Indies. There is however one exception, Rhipsalis baccifera; this species has a pantropical distribution, occurring in the Old World tropical Africa, Madagascar and Sri Lanka as well as in tropical America. This plant is thought to be a relatively recent colonist in the Old World (within the last few thousand years), probably carried as seeds in the digestive tracts of migratory birds. Many other cacti have become naturalized to similar environments in other parts of the world after being introduced by people. The Tehuacán Valley of Mexico has one of the richest occurrences of cacti in the world.
Cacti are believed to have evolved in the last 30 to 40 million years. Long ago, the Americas were joined to the other continents, but separated due to continental drift. Unique species in the New World must have developed after the continents had moved apart. Significant distance between the continents was only achieved in around the last 50 million years. This may explain why cacti are so rare in Africa as the continents had already separated when cacti evolved. Many succulent plants in both the Old and New World bear a striking resemblance to cacti, and are often called "cactus" in common usage. This is, however, due to parallel evolution; none of these is closely related to the Cactaceae.
Prickly pears (genus Opuntia) were imported into Australia in the 19th century to be used as a natural agricultural fence and to establish a cochineal dye industry, but quickly became a widespread weed. This invasive species is inedible for local herbivores and has rendered 40,000 km² of farming land unproductive. Most cacti have a short growing season and long dormancy. For example, a fully-grown Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) can absorb up to 3,000 litres of water in ten days. This is helped by the ability to form new roots quickly. Two hours after rain following a relatively long drought, root formation begins in response to the moisture. Apart from a few exceptions, an extensively ramified root system is formed, which spreads out immediately beneath the surface. The salt concentration in the root cells is relatively high, so that when moisture is encountered, water can immediately be absorbed in the greatest possible quantity. But the plant body itself is also capable of absorbing moisture (through the epidermis and the thorns), which for plants that are exposed to moisture almost entirely, or indeed in some cases solely, in the form of fog, is of the greatest importance for sustaining life.
Most cacti have very shallow roots that can spread out widely close to the surface of the ground to collect water, an adaptation to infrequent rains; in one examination, a young Saguaro only 12 cm. tall had a root system covering an area 2 meters in diameter, but with no roots more than 10 cm. deep. The larger columnar cacti also develop a taproot, primarily for anchoring but also to reach deeper water supplies and mineral nutrients.
One feature distinguishes the cacti from all other plants: cacti possess areoles, as they are known. The areole appears like a cushion with a diameter of up to 15 mm. and is formed by two opposing buds in the angles of a leaf. From the upper bud develops either a blossom or a side shoot, from the lower bud develop thorns. The two buds of the areoles can lie very close together, but they can also sometimes be separated by several centimeters. Like other succulents in the families of the Crassulaceae, Agavaceae (agaves), Euphorbiaceae (euphorbias), Liliaceae (lilies), Orchidaceae (orchids) and Vitaceae (vines), cacti reduce water loss through transpiration by Crassulacean acid metabolism. Here, transpiration does not take place during the day at the same time as photosynthesis, but at night. The plant stores the carbon dioxide chemically linked to malic acid until the daytime. During the day the stomata are closed and the plant releases the stored CO2 and uses it for photosynthesis. Because transpiration takes place during the cool humid night hours, water loss through transpiration is significantly reduced. Cacti, cultivated by people worldwide, are a familiar sight as potted plants, houseplants or in ornamental gardens in warmer climates. They often form part of xeriphytic (dry) gardens in arid regions, or raised rockeries. Some countries, such as Australia, have water restrictions in many cities, so drought-resistant plants are increasing in popularity. Numerous species have entered widespread cultivation, including members of Echinopsis, Mammillaria and Cereus among others. Some, such as the Golden Barrel dekha Cactus, Echinocactus grusonii, are prominent in garden design.
Cacti are commonly used for fencing material where there is a lack of either natural resources or financial means to construct a permanent fence. This is often seen in arid and warm climates, such as the Masai Mara in Kenya. This is known as a cactus fence. Cactus fences are often used by homeowners and landscape architects for home security purposes. The sharp thorns of the cactus deter unauthorized persons from entering private properties, and may prevent break-ins if planted under windows and near drainpipes. The aesthetic characteristics of some species, in conjunction with their home security qualities, makes them a considerable alternative to artificial fences and walls.
As well as garden plants, many cactus species have important commercial uses, some cacti bear edible fruit, such as the prickly pear and Hylocereus, which produces Dragon fruit or Pitaya. Opuntia are also used as host plants for cochineal bugs in the cochineal dye industry in Central America.
The Peyote, Lophophora williamsii, is a well-known psychoactive agent used by Native Americans in the Southwest of the United States of America. Some species of Echinopsis (previously Trichocereus) also have psychoactive properties. For example, the San Pedro cactus, a common specimen found in many garden centers, is known to contain mescaline