A cactus is a type of plant falling within the family of Cactacaea. The cactus plant is a succulent; meaning a type of plant that is capable of holding water within itself as a means of staying alive when deprived from rain for extended periods of time.
Because of this, many cactus plants are found in areas where there is little rain. The cactus plant is tied in heavily with desert imagery as they play such a vital role within this fragile ecosystem. They make up a very small number of plants that are capable of surviving in such a harsh environment. Without the cactus, many ecosystems that they are found in would cease to exist entirely.
There are many different types of cactus and it is difficult to place an exact number, but it is believed to be around 1,500 – 1,750 different types of cactus plants.
Key Differences From Most Plants
One of the first things that can be noticed when comparing a cactus to other plants is that a cactus does not have leaves. This is almost unheard of among plants. Leaves play such a vital role for most plants by means of gathering the suns energy, but cactus have to survive in much different circumstances and so they have developed a different way of doing things.
Rather than leaves, a cactus has a fully green surface that helps to compensate as a way of carrying out photosynthesis (the process by which plants get energy from sunlight).
The entirety of the cactus is also covered in spines, which look like tiny thorns but not like that of a rose bush; they are more similar to a needle in appearance.
Built for Survival
Because the cactus has adapted to such a harsh environment, it has become one of the toughest and most skilled survivors of all plants. They can thrive in terrain that even weeds wouldn’t survive.
Their complex root system helps them to dig deep into the earth and soak up water that other plants could never hope to reach. But once they have the water, there is still the issue of keeping it stored. Most creatures on the planet use up the water in their body almost as fast as they can take it in.
A cactus is built to hold water within itself for months, and can even grow and thrive during these dry periods. Their skin is thick and waxy and this helps to retain moisture.
The spine of the cactus also help keep predators at bay. During dry periods in a desert, the inside of a cactus may be the only place for an animal to find water. But if any animal could reach this water easily, the cactus plant would quickly die out.
The thick skin and sharp spines of a cactus make the act of breaking a cactus to steal its water an incredibly challenging task.
In hot, dry areas of the country many gardeners use cactus plants to decorate outdoor living areas since they can survive climates where other plants could not.