AskDefine | Define cactus

Dictionary Definition

cactus n : any spiny succulent plant of the family Cactaceae native chiefly to arid regions of the New World [also: cacti (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • /ˈkæktʊs/


  1. Any member of the family Cactaceae, a family of flowering New World succulent plants suited to a hot, semi-desert climate.
  2. Any succulent plant with a thick fleshy stem bearing spines but no leaves, including euphorbs.

Usage notes

The most precise definition of cactus includes only plants from the New World (the Americas) belonging to the family Cactaceae. Only one species of cactus is native to the Old World, namely the genus Pereskea is a shrubby leafy cactus that grows in western Africa. However, many African species of the family Euphorbiaceae grow in forms and shapes that resemble large species of Cactaceae. These forms are colloquially referred to as “cactus”. In general, then, any usage of the term “cactus” to plants from the Old World refers to plants in the Euphorbiaceae.


member of the Cactaceae

See also


  1. Non-functional, broken, exhausted.



From italbrac kaktos "cardoon"


  1. the cardoon, Cynara cardunculus


Extensive Definition

For other meanings, see Cactus (disambiguation).
This article is about the plant family. For the genus Cactus, see Mammillaria, Melocactus, and Opuntia.
Cacti redirects here. For the software, see Cacti (software).
A cactus (plural: cacti, the word derives from Greek, thus the Latin plural "cacti" is etymologically inappropriate, though it is frequently used nonetheless as is otherwise singular "cactus") is any member of the succulent plant family Cactaceae, native to the Americas. They are often used as ornamental plants, but some are also crop plants.
Cacti are distinctive and unusual plants, which are adapted to extremely arid and hot environments, showing a wide range of anatomical and physiological features which conserve water. Their stems have expanded into green succulent structures containing the chlorophyll necessary for life and growth, while the leaves have become the spines for which cacti are so well known.
Cacti come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. The tallest is Pachycereus pringlei, with a maximum recorded height of 19.2 m, and the smallest is Blossfeldia liliputiana, only about 1 cm diameter at maturity. Cactus flowers are large, and like the spines and branches arise from areoles. Many cactus species are night blooming, as they are pollinated by nocturnal insects or small animals, principally moths and bats. Cactuses' sizes range from small and round to pole-like and tall.


The cacti are succulent 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 (see image), 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 meters. 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 cactuses have a bitter milk-like substance 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 cactuses 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.


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 cactuses 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 cactuses 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 cactuses 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 are 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.

Adaptations to dry environment

Some environments, such as deserts, semi-deserts and dry steppes, receive little water in the form of precipitation. Plants that inhabit these dry areas are known as xerophytes, and many of them are succulents, with thick or reduced, "succulent", leaves. Apart a few exceptions (for example, the genus "Rhodocactus") all cacti are succulent plants, although not all succulent plants are cactuses. Like other succulents, these cactuses have a range of specific adaptations that enable them to survive in these environments.
Cacti have never lost their leaves completely; they have only reduced the size so that they reduce the surface area through which water can be lost by transpiration. In some species the leaves are still remarkably large and ordinary while in other species they have become microscopic but they still contain the stomata, xylem and phloem. Certain cactus species have also developed ephemeral leaves, which are leaves that last for a short period of time when the stem is still in its early stages of development. A good example of a species that has ephemeral leaves is the Opuntia ficus-indica, better known as the prickly pear. Cacti have also developed spines which allow less water to evaporate through transpiration by shading the plant, and defend the cactus against water-seeking animals. The spines grow from specialized structures called areoles. Very few members of the family have leaves, and when present these are usually rudimentary and soon fall off; they are typically awl-shaped and only 1-3 mm. long. Two genera, Pereskia and Pereskiopsis, do however retain large, non-succulent leaves 5-25 cm. long, and also non-succulent stems. Pereskia has now been determined to be the ancestral genus from which all other cactuses evolved.
Enlarged stems carry out photosynthesis and store water. Unlike many other succulents, the stem is the only part of a true cactus where this takes place. Much like many other plants that have waxy coatings on their leaves, Cacti often have a waxy coating on their stems to prevent water loss. This works by preventing water from spreading on the surface and allowing water to trickle down the stem to be absorbed by the roots and used for photosynthesis. Cacti have a thick, hard-walled, succulent stem - when it rains, water is stored in the stem. The stems are photosynthetic, green, and fleshy. The inside of the stem is either spongy or hollow (depending on the cactus). A thick, waxy coating keeps the water inside the cactus from evaporating.
The bodies of many cacti have become thickened during the course of evolution, and form water-retentive tissue and in many cases assume the optimal shape of the sphere (combining highest possible volume with lowest possible surface area). By reducing its surface area, the body of the plant is also protected against excessive sunlight.
Most cactuses 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 cactuses' ability to form new roots quickly. Only two hours after rain following a relatively long drought the formation of new roots begins. 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 cactuses also develop a taproot, primarily for anchoring but also to reach deeper water supplies and mineral nutrients.


Cactuses, 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 Cactus, Echinocactus grusonii, are prominent in garden design. Cactuses 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. Cactuses 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 cactuses have important commercial uses; some cactuses 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.


The word cactus is ultimately derived from Greek Κακτος kaktos, used in classical Greek for a species of spiny thistle, possibly the cardoon, and used as a generic name, Cactus, by Linnaeus in 1753 (now rejected in favor of Mammillaria). There is some dispute as to the proper plural form of the word; as a Greek loan into English, the correct plural in English would be "cactoi" or "cactuses". However, as a word in Botanical Latin (as distinct from Classical Latin), "cactus" would follow standard Latin rules for pluralization and become "cacti", which has become the prevalent usage in English. Regardless, cactus is popularly used as both singular and plural, and is cited as both singular and plural by the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2006).


commons The Cactaceae
  • Anderson, E. F. (2001). The Cactus Family. Timber Press ISBN 0-88192-498-9 - Comprehensive and lavishly illustrated.
  • Benson, L. (1981). The Cacti of Arizona. University of Arizona Press ISBN 0-8165-0509-8 - Thorough treatment of the Arizona, U.S.A., species
  • Kiesling, R., Mauseth, J. D., & Ostolaza, C. N. (2002). A Cactus Odyssey. Timber Press ISBN 0-88192-526-8
cactus in Arabic: صبار
cactus in Aymara: Achakaña
cactus in Bengali: ক্যাক্‌টাস
cactus in Min Nan: Sian-jîn-chióng
cactus in Tibetan: ཀླུ་ཥིང་
cactus in Bulgarian: Кактусови
cactus in Catalan: Cactàcia
cactus in Czech: Kaktusovité
cactus in Danish: Kaktus-familien
cactus in German: Kakteengewächse
cactus in Spanish: Cactaceae
cactus in Esperanto: Kakto
cactus in Persian: کاکتوس
cactus in French: Cactaceae
cactus in Galician: Cacto
cactus in Korean: 선인장
cactus in Upper Sorbian: Kaktusowe rostliny
cactus in Croatian: Kaktusi
cactus in Indonesian: Kaktus
cactus in Italian: Cactaceae
cactus in Hebrew: צבריים
cactus in Georgian: კაქტუსისებრნი
cactus in Lithuanian: Kaktusiniai
cactus in Hungarian: Kaktuszfélék
cactus in Dutch: Cactusfamilie
cactus in Japanese: サボテン
cactus in Norwegian: Kaktusfamilien
cactus in Polish: Kaktusowate
cactus in Portuguese: Cactaceae
cactus in Romanian: Cactaceae
cactus in Quechua: Waraqu yura rikch'aq ayllu
cactus in Russian: Кактусовые
cactus in Simple English: Cactus
cactus in Serbian: Кактус
cactus in Finnish: Kaktuskasvit
cactus in Swedish: Kaktusväxter
cactus in Thai: กระบองเพชร
cactus in Vietnamese: Họ Xương rồng
cactus in Tajik: Кактус
cactus in Turkish: Kaktüsgiller
cactus in Ukrainian: Кактусові
cactus in Yiddish: קאקטוס
cactus in Chinese: 仙人掌

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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