I am referring to some plants that are covered in sharp spines and came to be characterized by some rather “thick, bulbous green stems and no leaves”. For sure these flowers add a burst of color to any arid land and most certainly offer a spectacular view in any house or garden. Being associated most often with the hot, dry regions few of us know that they may as well be encountered on mountain tops and even in rainforests. Just in case you did not realized what I am talking about I shall unwrap it all and say that it all carries one generic name, namely cacti.
You must have heard by now that cacti belong to a quite numerous family, generally known under the name of the succulent family. These terms make reference to a rather broad category of plants, plants that are known to have thick “leaves” specially designed to store water. Of course when mentioning a cactus one sketches in his mind the very sharp thorns these plants bear, sometimes neglecting to bring into that image the rather delicate cacti flowers that can range from such colors as white to the vibrant pink and orange tonalities. Either delicate or large colorful blooms these flowers enchant the viewer’s eyes.
Have you ever been interested in finding out the hidden meanings invested into the cactus flowers? If you have, then most certainly you managed to discover that this flower is most often lumped together with endurance. The cacti plants are often labeled as special, distinctive and unusual plants, plants that have learned to adapt to rather extreme hot, arid climates and that have been endowed with just the right range of features to be able to preserve the rather scarce water. It looks to me as some skillful, talented painter while trying to sketch a plant on a white sheet of paper just took his time and gave a good thought to every little detail, placing everything in its right place and assigning every part its rightful role; in this way the stems have spread out into “green succulent structures” and meanwhile granted some time to the creator to transform the leaves into the already very well known spines which have come to characterize the cacti plant.
Cacti plants live for many years, being encountered in various habitats and displaying a wide range of shapes varying from simple to more complex, complicated ones such as the ones which carry branches or the ones which have the aspect of some columns, the treelike ones. No matter the shape they adopt or literally decide to take, cacti are nevertheless defined or distinguished from the other desert plants by the clusters of spines, unfriendly ones of course.
I found it written somewhere the following words and perhaps they come to be deemed as veridical ones too: “If God would choose a plant to represent him, I think he would choose of all plants the cactus. The cactus has all the blessings he tried, but mostly failed, to give to man. Let me tell you how. It had humility, but it is not submissive. It grows where no other plant will grow. It does not complain when the sun bakes it back or the wind tears it from the cliff or drowns it in the dry sand of the desert or when it is thirsty. When the rain comes it stores water for the hard times to come. In good times and in bad it will still flower. It protects itself against danger but it harms no other plant. It adapts perfectly to almost any environment. It has patience and enjoys solitude. In Mexico there is a cactus that flowers only once every hundred years and at night. This is saintliness of an extraordinary kind, would you not agree? The cactus has properties that heal the wounds of men and from it come potions that can make man touch the face of God or stare into the mouth of hell. It is the plant of patience and solitude, love and madness, ugliness and beauty, toughness and gentleness. Of all plants, surely God made the cactus in his own image?”
Out of all these words, what I like most is the part which depicts the cacti plant as being a mixture of “love and madness, patience and solitude, ugliness and beauty, toughness and gentleness”. It could be because I view cacti this way too. There are all sort of stories going around their name, some saying that in fact it is not recommended to keep a cactus in the room you spend most of your time because according to some secret rules these plants practically absorb all the negative elements that are to be found in a particular environment; this is why some recommend that they should be kept in bathrooms or less frequented areas. If it is true or not, I really do not know, yet there must be some feng-shui rules which I failed to grasp at the right time.
“It grows where no other plant will grow.” – Whenever we happen to hear the word “desert” we usually picture in our mind the desert of Sahara with its burning sand-dunes bereaved of any vegetation. Even so, evidences come to tell us that the stony deserts located in South and Central America host in their soil the roots of rather magnificent cacti plants. As you can all probably imagine, these arid desert lands meet rain on very rare occasions and as such we come to wonder where from the necessary survival water comes. Indeed when mentioning water sources, cacti plants come to enjoy a rather poor water diet and perhaps this, as well as many other facts make the plant special and unique. That scarce water comes from the rich dews falling at night and from whatever other source they dispose of, stealing some drops of vital water.
Out there on this rather crowded planet, there are the mountain cacti and the desert cacti. Most of us associate the cactus plant with the desert lands yet there can be some left for the mountainous areas as well. Amazingly enough out of the rocky walls spring some amazing blooming cereuses. Even though their presence there seems rather incredible because despite trying hard to tell how these cacti manage to survive the harsh mountainous conditions, during daytime being at the mercy of the bright and burning sun and at night freezing in the cold mountain air, few manage to find a possible explanation for the existence of so much toughness and endurance in a single magnificent plant. If only you’d see such a cactus you’d know that it is a real miracle of nature! Evidences come to prove that in fact what protects these cacti from the extreme changes in temperatures is really the wooly cover which has been described by many as being pretty dense. In the class of mountain cacti one would include such cactus types as the following ones: cleistocactus, echinopsis, notocactus, rebutia, oreocereus, astrophytum and others as well.
Most surely you have had the chance to see a flowering or perhaps just a thorny or better said spiny cactus plant, yet do you know or ever wondered where their name comes from? If you have then I am right here to tell you that cactus get their name from the Greek word “Kaktos”, which can be translated using the word “thistle”. Even though you may react like I did when hearing this, I cannot fail to tell you that one of the most well known or better said familiar cacti is the aloe vera plant, a plant which is already famous for its succulent spiny stems, stems which are filled with a gel that can work real miracles.
Have you ever wondered how can so much beauty blend in with all those sharp spines telling one to handle the plant as smoothly as possible? Which is the role fulfilled by all those spines? Not only that the spines come to protect the plant from all those animals that lie in wait for the slightest opportunity to get a good bite of it and as such are kept at a respectful distance, the plant dismissing all their culinary plans, but spines also permit nighttime moisture to condense on them, resembling dew in many ways, and afterwards letting this moisture infiltrate into the plant’s hollow roots. Amazingly enough the clusters of spines also functions as some sort of a wind barricade, thus being able to stop the process of evaporation during hot days.
Did you know for example that there are more than 2500 cactus species in the world? They can in small size and rather gigantic sizes as well and what is rather captivating about them is the fact that they can stay alive for a long time even without its roots. Did you know that a cactus can grow up to 15 meters but at the same time it can display such smallness as the cactus carrying the name Blossfeldia does, fitting a teaspoon? Have you ever wondered which cactus is the world’s largest cactus? If you have then your curiosity is just about to be satisfied when being informed that the world’s largest cactus is Californian giant Cereus. Rumors say that this cactus resembles a chandelier and that it can store the rather huge amount of neither more nor less than just about up to 2 tones of water. One of these species of cactus is said to have grown up to the considerable height of 24 meters, reaching the incredible age of 150 years. I consider this to be simply amazing, don’t you?
And as there almost never is just what meets the eye, such is the case of cactus too. It could be said that these plants practically munch on endurance. I say this having in mind the information according to which the cactus works magic on temperatures and with a 37°С air temperature the plant can reach the amazing temperature of 52°С. Have you ever wondered which is considered to be the most beautiful cactus? People from all around the word voted and assigned the flower of Cereus Serpentinus the winner medal. I guess they organized a beauty contest and asked all cacti beauties to march in front of them and finally they picked this one and declared it the most beautiful in the world. It is said that this cactus blooms only at night. Some other interesting facts about this flower include its size, reaching up to 30 cm in diameter. Even though beautiful, it is considered to be a quite picky, fastidious cactus, overdelicate as it is most often being labeled as and this is why if you plan to see such a prototype then you’d better take a ticket towards Monte Carlo and visit the cactus garden. To be honest, this information as well as a picture of this cactus I managed to see succeeded in making me really curious.
Even so, as beautiful as these cacti happen to be, they do have a quite painful handshake. What better way to remember their name if not by reminding it to you on every occasion? I managed to find the following words written somewhere:” Beware of the cactus handshake” and they can prove to be truer than never when hearing the discoveries cactus experts managed to come up with. Cactus experts managed to discover that not paying attention to the cacti’s painful “handshake” and handling in inappropriately can literally pinch one a hundred times. Those of you who were introduced to one single cacti spine know how painful this whole business can prove to be and probably started lamenting about it in anticipation, somehow empathizing with who were already introduced to this rather firm, thorny and at the same time agonizing “handshake”.
It is said that the cactus made already acquaintance with a large part of the Australian population, installing quite a terror there. Rumors say that cactus became widely known there for its rather “sharp hospitality”. Even so, after a long, determinate “fight”, Australians managed to install peace on the lands covered once almost entirely by cacti plants. You may be laughing as long as you wish but going deep into the matter you are going to discover that there really happens to be one cactus which is in fact considered to be “most dangerous”. These cacti belong to the genus Lophophora, otherwise known as peyote and they came to be prohibited because of the hallucinogenic effect they have on people. It is even said that Aztecs were at some point prohibited to pick peyote and that if doing otherwise they risked facing death. And surprise or not, the only ones who were allowed to pick peyote were the Aztec priests. It look to me that Aztecs have tried them all: human flesh, hallucinogenic cacti…the whole menu if I may say so.
What were the effects of these cacti on the human body? You should have seen an Aztec to be able to deem this. Rumors say that Aztec priests kept chewing on this cactus plant and that it all resulted in some hard to make out mumbling, a muttering which was often compared to some “baby talk”. Ancient Indians were said to organize all sorts of so called cactus rituals and I have to admit that the very name of these rituals managed to trigger my curiosity. These people were animated in all these practices which appear quite weird to us nowadays by the belief that peyote had been endowed with some miraculous properties. Even nowadays, there are people who continue to envisage this plant as carrying the same magical gifts.
Do you tend to think that people needed fortune tellers or witches at that time? If you think so, then evidences come to contradict you and sort of inform you that at that time people believed that all they needed in order to be able to unveil their future or better said what this one holds for them, was to chew some peyote and they could see it all on the mind’s screen, if of course there can be talk about such a thing. Unfortunately, this did not work all the times and some of those trying it ended up going crazy. I guess it all comes down to the incapacity to bear too much truth or future, I still haven’t made up my mind which one is it. What I can suppose instead is that it may be quite a long adventure if only one decides to try this on his own.
And cacti certainly hide other well kept secrets as well. For example, I guess not many of us know what carmine that special red dye is made of. What is captivating is the fact that until 1785 it is said that all this red dye was in fact wrapped in mystery, some sort of a “state secret” to which no one had access. By now, most of us know that it all goes down to some cochineal insects but the rather weird part comes when being told that Mexicans used squirrel tails to mop insects from cacti and only afterwards they embarked upon all those drying and steaming activities that proved of prior importance for the issuing of the final product.
It is said that Christopher Columbus is the one who discovered the cactus and who even brought it as a gift to Isabella, queen of Castille. But even so, I guess most of you did not know that even before being discovered by Columbus, the cactus’s sap was used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans or that the cactus fruit was believed to be a real delicacy, being devoured either raw or cooked, taking the form of jam or candy. Pretty skilled these Native Americans, don’t you think so? And the above mentioned things do not tell it all. Oh yes, there is even more to it, even though many of you would not have expected this. There was a time when spines came to be sued as combs, fishhooks, sewing needles and even toothpicks. And the cherry on top of the cake to say it so, is just about to be introduced to you: there is a cactus species out there, carrying the name of Oerocereus celsianus that has been endowed with some soft and long needles which are used to fill mattresses and even pillows. So, now you know it all! If you ever felt as if you slept on needles, it all might have been too real even for you to bear it. I honestly cannot hold myself from asking how must it feel to sleep on such a pillow or even worse on such a mattress.
Going back to food and cactus turned into food I cannot fail to say something about one of Mexican’s favorite food, namely the so called candy cactus. You may even try it pickled and salted or with some meat next to it. You all probably know by now that when it comes to culinary habits or preferences, people around the world can become pretty inventive. Needless to say that this happens to be the case of cacti too.
What I guess you did not know was the fact that cacti happen to be an essential ingredient in the production of some wines, liqueurs, deodorants and even soaps. I’d really crave to taste such a liqueur or I would honestly not mind if I had just a bottle of wine, to be able to take a sip of this wine.
Have you ever been aware of the antibacterial properties of some species of cacti such as Lophophora? You’d better be told that Indian tribes used it once as an antidote for scorpion and snake bites or as some sort of a refreshing ingredient, some secret of eternal youth if I may say so, being just what one apparently needed in order to be able to rock the world making use of dancing steps all night long and this surprisingly enough without even getting tired. And this was not the only occasion when the juice of this type of cactus used to be drunk but this time before battles, probably inspiring the warriors to be more energetic and conquer it all as some would say. When being placed under the influence of this magical cactus species a man is supposed to feel all-mighty.
And going deeper into the matter of interesting uses of cactus I’d have to say a few words about the so called Saguaro cactus, a cactus which is used in Central and Southern America as a building material.
Therefore all these facts make this rather paradoxical plant even more interesting and all the more captivating and appreciated across the world. And because it all started with a plant often being associated with the desert and the magic surrounding this rather arid and hot climate I shall put an end to it all by making use of a poem entitled “Desert Sonnet”, a poem written by Phillip Camitses: “Oh desert I call out to you; / Your clear dry air reveals clarity of distant places my eyes see and hands touch; / Your quiet desolation so stark it screams to me; / Your hidden life to a casual observer is revealed to the patient; / Your dryness allows my whole body to breathe; / Your colorful mineral soils are not hidden by trees; / Your trails and roads offer access into respite; / Your biting plants and animals teach me how to respect others; / Your refreshing oasis sparkle and wink a playful laughter; / Your flash of food and lightning flashes in my mind as an impressionistic painting; / Your sage and creosote out number the diamond stars in ink black skies; / Your snapshot images a pronghorn leap a tortoise snort a rock fall; / Your etchings of ancient others from early times past; / Oh desert I call out to you.”11