Like many teenagers of my era, I was overly obsessed with what I considered flaws in my physical appearance. Each time I looked in the mirror, all I could see was my big ears, round face, and less than perfect figure. I think this was one reason I developed an affinity for cacti.
In comparison with other plants, cacti are both physically and physiologically quite different. From an early age, these differences didn’t go unnoticed by me. When I looked at the round barrels and prickly exteriors of cacti, I didn’t see an oddball of a plant. Instead, I saw something uniquely beautiful.
Thanks to cacti, I eventually learned to appreciate my own unique differences. More importantly, I’ve learned to value differences in others. For years, I’ve kept a collection of cacti on the windowsill above my kitchen sink as a reminder of this valuable lesson. I don’t have a favorite species or variety of cacti. In fact, the more diverse my collection, the better.
Here’s why I think cacti are so special among the many families of plants in the flora kingdom:
- Cacti don’t have true leaves– Instead, they have spines, which are highly modified leaves. Spines grow from specialized structures, called areole, which are unique to members of the cactus family. Spines can be straight, curved, hooked, and even hairlike, but they all serve a similar purpose. Primarily used as a defense mechanism to ward off hungry animals, cacti spines also provide shade and help trap moisture from the air.
- Cacti are nocturnal– Unlike most plants, cacti open up their stoma at night to absorb and store the CO2 needed for photosynthesis. This prevents water loss in these desert-loving plants. Unlike other plants, cacti carry out photosynthesis in the cells found in their stems, i.e., the barrel of the cactus.
- Cacti are adept at water storage– From their shallow roots to their ribbed barrels, cacti are well-adapted to absorb water quickly and store it indefinitely. Urban legend suggests large saguaros can take in as much as 200 gallons of water per rainstorm. One intriguing feature about cacti is their ribbed barrels swell in accordance with the amount of water they drink.
- Cacti are long-lived– Although many plants are reputed to have long lives, several species of cacti have birthdays which can number in centuries rather than years. However, unlike many other species of plants, older cacti bear the scars and blemishes acquired during their lifetime. This makes those round-shaped, prickly plants much more reminiscent of myself (and a lifetime of gardening mishaps) than I’d like to admit!