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Cactus plants are some of the most impressive natural specimens in the kingdom of flora. But what are they? Why are they so different from other plants, and what mysteries and amazing facts do these spooky little plants hold with them?
Cacti are spiny, thorny, small heightened, and leaves lacking plants generally found in desserts and barren land. Most people generally see them as a shrub growing out of nowhere, causing trouble, which is neither of any user, nor does it adds beauty to our places. Still, the cactus is a plant holding the potential of a lot to give, tell and reciprocate with us and mother earth.
Very few people still have cactus shrubs in their homes or workplaces.
What is Cactus?
A cactus is a member of the Cactaceae plant family. Cactaceae plant family consists of 127 genera, among which 1750 species are known in today’s world of the order Caryophyllales.
Cacti grow in a wide range of shapes and sizes. The cactus plant’s general habitat is the area with drought situations or generally less water receiving areas, arid environment. Cactus is a word derived through Latin from the ancient Greek word kaktos used by Theophrastus for addressing a spiny plant.
Each plant requires water for its proper growth, development, and maintenance, including Cactus. As Cacti grow in regions with scarce or no water, some people might think that cactus is a plant that does not consume water at all. No, this is not true. Like other plants, cactuses also require water for all sorts of biological and biochemical processes to survive. The fact that less availability of water in the region it grows is true.
Thus, the Cactus have various adaptations to survive through the scarcity or less water availability and maintain their growth. The cacti plants are adapted naturally to conserve water within themselves for their growth and future usage.
How Cactus Conserve Water?
Cacti are succulent plants. Succulent plants are the plants where several parts of the plants get adapted to store the water better. They are thick and very fleshy, which helps them conserve a large amount of water within themselves for future use.
Some succulent plants store the water in the stem, whereas some store them in the leaves.
Cactus have thickened, fleshy part adaptions for water conservation. In the majority of the cactuses, the stem is the part that helps in water conservation. In such a situation, these plants’ leaves get converted to spines by losing the true leaves, which are known as highly modified leaves.
These modified leaves of the plant prevent excessive water loss and provide shade and save them from the grazing herbivores and increase their survival ratio compared to other plants.
Many cacti possess globe-shaped stems. This provides the plant with an excellent capacity for water storage and the lowest rate of transpiration. Cactus in plural form is referred to as cacti.
Cactus follows the CAM pathway that is the Crassulacean Acid Metabolism for food production. In this metabolism, the transpiration process that involves entry of carbon dioxide and water escape does not occur during the day but during the night in the cacti plants. The transpiration process, as mentioned, takes place at night, which results in the least loss of water from the plant during the cool atmosphere of the night.
The cactus’s spines are derived from structures known as areoles. There are several species of cactus varying from one another. Some of these have a short growing season with long dormancy. These plants can react immediately to heavy rainfall, which helps the shallow root system of this particular plant store water quickly. The water gets absorbed comparatively faster from the ground.
This plant’s stem structure is often fluted, which acts accordingly as per the plant’s needs. This helps in easy contraction and expansion depending on water absorption and storage.
Thus, the leaves and spine, roots and stem, and the cactus plants’ metabolism play an important role in the cactus plant’s water conservation process, depending on its type.
Let us try to understand the role of each part of the cacti in the water conservation mechanism.
Leaves and Spines:
As discussed earlier, the cactus plant roots get modified to spines for less water loss during the transpiration process. This feature of missing leaves is seen in the majority of the cacti.
Apart from this, many cactus species possess leaves, and they play an important role in water conservation. The Pereskia species of the cactus plant found in ancient history possess long-lasting leaves that are thick and succulent.
Other species like the Pereskiopsis, with its succulent leaves, play a key role in conserving water.
The spines of cacti plants that are the modified leaves possess a high surface area to volume ratio. The concept of water loss in plants is dependent on the ratio of surface area to volume. Plants with a larger surface area than volume possess a greater water loss tendency than plants with less surface area and greater volume.
The spiny structure of the cactus plants during a foggy atmosphere traps the molecules of water on it. These trapped molecules then slowly slide to the ground, which is then absorbed by the roots.
Spines are generally made up of dead cell fibers possessing less or no water at all. Spines help trap the air near the plant, which creates a moist environment around the plant that prevents transpiration.
They also provide a small amount of shade to the plant and maintain the plant’s temperature, which also helps prevent water loss.
Most of the cacti are stem succulent plants. Thus the stem is modified to help them store water for their further growth and development. Even though the cacti grow in desert areas and regions with the least water availability, cacti can be formed of 80-90% of water. The water holding capacity of succulent plants is very much greater than any other plants.
Various types of cacti plants have varying shapes of the stem, from cylindrical to globular. The fluted stems possessing cacti can shrink and expand depending on the water content in the respected plant. Each type is mainly focused on retaining moisture and conserving water in the plant. The plants in which stems are modified to help in water conservation and mainly the cacti plants with spines, stems can carry out photosynthesis.
The cacti stem possesses wax layers, which prevents water loss and is also responsible for imparting the bluish tinge color to the stem of cacti. The stem also consists of a hard cuticle to assist them in this particular function.
The roots of cacti plants and their growth are very much different from other plant kingdom plants. Cacti roots possess a wide radius of spreading but cannot penetrate deep in the soil. Cacti are easy to grow and do not require much care, attention, and water to grow into a well-developed plant. For the cactus with spines, there is not much need to pruning them, and the work becomes even easier.
The roots of cacti possess a high salt content and tend to grow fast as soon as they are exposed to a good water source. Mostly the growth of the root system of cacti plants takes place perfectly during the rainfall.
Many cacti plants possess long taproots, which helps them store some amount of water and increases the plant’s water-absorbing capacity. Such plant roots assist the stem of the plant in water conservation.
These cacti root adaptations help absorb an abundance of water from the soil, which can be used shortly.
We all are well-known for the concept of photosynthesis, how it occurs, its needs, and outputs. The cacti plants being an organism of the plant kingdom, also follow the same rules but differently.
As mentioned earlier, the cacti carry out the CAM pathway that is Crassulacean Acid Metabolism. In the CAM pathway, the loss of water during metabolism is reduced significantly, which is a significant feature of the plant for water conservation.
Plants possess a structure known as stomata on their parts. Stomata are generally known as the leaves’ opening, which opens and leads to water loss during transpiration. Stomata is the most important part of a plant that is responsible for the process of transpiration.
In cacti, these stomata are opened only during the nighttime, in a cooler environment, to carry out CAM, which is the most important feature of the cacti plants for conserving water and reducing water loss.
The parts where this process takes place varies in different types of cacti. Generally, this is a function of leaves in most plants, but in plants possessing spines instead of leaves, this process is carried out by the stem of that plant.
The stomata only open during nighttime and stores the CO2, which enters through and is later processed to produce food for the plant. The CAM pathway is the pathway where the stored CO2 is the main source for producing a nutritive substance for the plant’s growth and development.
Thus, all of these parts of the cacti plants are modified and help them survive in areas with no or less water, helping them survive.
Now, cacti are not only significant in their adaptations, but they also contain many other significant properties that could be of great advantage to us. Let us talk about it and know the amazing benefits of these not so significant looking plants.
Benefits of Cactus Plant:
You may not be aware that the cactus plants are the staple food of many Latin American habitat people. Cactus can be consumed as food. The fruits of cactus or cactus pads are generally edible parts that can be consumed raw or cooked depending on their choice.
Not only are these plants consumed as food, but they also possess many medicinal benefits that help in curing, nurturing, and maintaining our body.
Cacti consist of amazing medicinal properties that help cure various types of infection and ease many disorders’ symptoms. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory substance.
2. Manages Cholesterol Levels:
Cacti, due to their significant adaptations, consist of a large amount of fiber. This fiber content of the cactus helps in maintaining the cholesterol levels of the body. Including cacti fruits in the diet reduces the risk of stroke and many other cardiovascular diseases.
3. Manages Blood Sugar Levels:
It is mentioned in a scientific study in Mexico that cactus pads help manage blood glucose levels. The study showed that people consuming cactus pads compared with the people not consuming them showed very well balanced sugar levels in normal and diabetic patients.
Thus cactus is somehow useful in the proper functioning of the body related to blood sugar levels.
4. Enhances Immune System:
The fruits of cactus, like citrus fruits, are an excellent source of Vitamin C. As we know, Vitamin C is the major nutrient that maintains the immune system’s proper functioning. It also helps boost the immune system and thus protects the body from several infections introduced in the body.
5. Improves Digestion:
Cactus products help reduce cellulite, resulting in increased water holding capacity and healthy bowel moment. Thus cactus is also helpful in improving digestion in animals.
6. Helps In Reducing and Managing Weight:
Cactus is a highly nutritive diet with 7 amino acids, 8 being essential, and provides excellent energy to the body. It is a low-calorie food containing amino acids, minerals, and vitamins important for weight loss.
Cactus possess antiviral and antioxidant properties. They assist the body mechanism and protect our nerve cells and help treat an enlarged prostate. Cactus also acts as an excellent indoor plant as it provides us with better and more purified air quality.
Apart from these, there are several other important functions and benefits of cacti plants. Thus cacti plants possess much more than they show and are really worth taking care of and nurturing.