Cacti / Desert Succulents

Succulents are plants that are capable of storing water, a major advantage in an arid ecosystem. Different adaptations allow them to thrive in areas with high temperatures and low rainfall.

All cacti are succulents and are able to survive in the desert as a result of their many physical adaptations. They have roots close to the soil surface that quickly collects rainwater. The stem swells during wet weather, and then contracts during a drought. The green stems photosynthesize throughout the hot and dry summer. The waxy skin reduces the amount of water lost due to transpiration. The spines provide shade, break up wind currents, and provides protection.

All the cacti were used by native people for food, medicine, dyes, tools, and a variety of other uses. Other desert plants, such as the agave, sotol, and yucca have an impressive array of spines, but they are not cacti. Learn more about these species below.



Barrel Cacti
Fishhook Barrel Cactus

NPS Photo/ C. Sadler

Fishhook Barrel Cactus (Compass Barrel)

Ferocactus wislizeni

The Fishhook barrel cactus has prominent ribs, is heavily armed with spines, and has central spines curved like a fishhook. They are drawn toward sunlight and the faster growth on the cactus's shady side causes them to lean in a southerly direction. They can grow to 11' in height and to 2' in diameter. The flowers are orange to yellow to reddish, cup shaped, and bloom in the day.

Instead of water, the cactus is filled with a slimy alkaline juice. It is a myth that the barrel's juicy interior is a good water source.

- The cactus was hallowed out to use as a storage container or to cook food over hot stones.
- The spines could be set into hard pitch to use as awls or as needles for pricking tattoo designs.
- A slice of the cactus (with spines removed) was roasted, wrapped in cloth, and applied to sore places for relief of pain.
Buckhorn Cholla
Buckhorn Cholla

NPS Photo/ J. Smith

Buckhorn Cholla

Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa

Teddy Bear Cholla (Jumping Cholla)

Cylindropuntia bigelobii

Cholla is a term applied to various shrubby cacti with cylindrical stems composed of segmented joints. These stems are actually modified branches that serve several functions- water storage, photosynthesis, and flower production.

Buckhorn cholla is a green, shrubby, and tree-like cactus with elongated joints that can grow to height of 6'. Their flowers are yellow, orange, or red and their spines are straw-colored. Teddy bear cholla is a light-green to bluish-green, shrubby and tree-like cactus that can grow to a height of 5'. Their flowers are greenish or yellowish and their spines are silvery.

Teddy Bear Cholla
Teddy Bear Cholla

NPS Photo/ C. Sadler

- Its buds are high in protein, fiber, iron, and calcium; a four-ounce serving provides more calcium than an eight-ounce glass of milk.
- A gel could be made and used as a skin softener and burn treatment. Dried segments were ground or burned into a powder and use to treat burns or open sores.
- Cholla were planted around gardens to protect the plants from different animals
Hedgehog Cactus
Hedgehog Cactus

NPS Photo

Hedgehog Cactus

Echinocereus engelmannii

Hedgehog cactus form large, round clusters with green, cylinder stems up to 3' in diameter. Their cup-shaped flowers are varying shades of magenta with a green stigma in the center, and they have whitish colored spines. Their small fruit is edible, and said to taste like strawberries. It is rich in fats and sugar.

The inner flesh was used to treat sunburns, cuts, abrasions, compound fractures, open blisters, and insect stings.

Pincushion Cactus
Pincushion Cactus

NPS Photo

Pincushion Cactus

Mammillaria grahamii

This very small, cylindrical cactus grows to a height of 6". It has 1/2-inch long hooked spines at the top of the cactus and the body is surrounded by numerous, straight spines. Their flowers are pink to lavender in color, and their spines are grayish and dense. The flowers are followed by small, red fruit.

The small red fruit is rubbed on arrowshafts to color them.
- For an earache, the thorns are removed, the cactus is sliced, boiled, and placed warm in the ear.
Prickly Pear Fruit
Prickly Pear Fruit

NPS Photo/ C. Sadler

Englemann's Prickly Pear Cactus

Opuntia engelmannii

Prickly pear cactus have flat, fleshy pads that look like large leaves. These pads, actually modified branches, serve several functions- water storage, photosynthesis, and flower production. They are a wide, spreading cactus that can grow up to 5' in height. Their flowers are yellow, orange, or reddish which are followed by red to purplish fruit, called tunas. Both the pads and fruit are edible and sold in stores today.

- The ripe fruits could be eaten fresh, dried, ground, mixed with corn meal, fermented for a beverage, or made into a syrup.
- The young pads can be dethorned, cleaned, and sliced, and eaten raw or cooked. They taste like green beans with vinegar.
- The pad could be used in a variety of forms as anti-inflammatory for digestive and urinary tract infections, to treat wounds, burns, sunburns, insect and scorpion stings, mumps, rheumatism, bruises, bleeding, inflammation, toothaches, for childbirth, or as an insect repellant. They may may be effective in lowering blood sugar, reducing cholesterol, and treating cancer.
- The sticky sap can be used to make chewing gum, candles, and as a stiffener for cotton. Mix it with lime, sand, and water to strengthen whitewash or adobe mortar.
- An extract of the flowers can reduce inflammation and speed healing.
- The pulp is used to clarify water for drinking. Slice some pads into thin strips, and mix one part of these to four part waters, and let it sit for a couple of hours.

Saguaro next to Saguaro Skeleton

NPS Photo/ J. Smith

Saguaro (Giant Cactus)

Carnegiea gigantea

Saguaro cactus are one of the defining plants of the Sonoran Desert. They are large, tall tree-like cacti that develop branches or arms as they age. In fact, they are the largest cactus in the United States. They are covered in protective spines, white flowers in late spring, and red fruit in the summer. Learn more about the saguaro cactus.

- The fruit is tasty fresh, dried, fermented into wine, or made into jelly or syrup. A single serving, roughly five fruits, has about 167 calories, 4 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, and is high in fiber and vitamin C.
- The tiny seeds can be ground into flour or a peanut butter-like spread. The oil is a substitute for lard.
- The wood is used for starting fires, building, splints, or as canes for the elderly, blind, and dancers.
- A piece of heated flesh is wrapped in cloth and used to treat rheumatism.
- Saguaro boots are used to carry and store food and other objects.

Desert Succulents

Parry's Agave

NPS Photo/ J Smith

Agave (Century Plant)

Agave chrysantha

Agaves have a distinctive rosette arrangement of succulent, grayish green leaves. This leaf arrangement serves to funnel rain water to the center of the plant. An agave will spend years storing water and carbohydrates in its heart for its life-ending event- the flowering stalk. When it matures, having stored enough resources, the agave begins to flower. The plants literally flower themselves to death and new plants already forming on the established root system will take over.

- The leaves could be harvested in late winter when other fresh foods were unavailable.
- The flower stalks were harvested in spring and summer before they produced blossoms. Both the leaves and stalks were roasted in a large pit for about 2 days and eaten or pounded into cakes to be dried for later consumption. The leaf mass "heart" was eaten like a giant artichoke and tasted like molasses.
- The flowers were boiled to remove bitterness and were eaten immediately or sun-dried. Seeds were gathered and ground into flour.
- Long fibers were used to make rope, nets to carry things in, bow strings, sandals, cradles, skirts, mats, basked foundations, and snares. Pulling the spine and fiber from the leaf created a needle and thread.
- Agaves have antiseptic, wound-healing, and anti-inflammatory properties; it could be used to treat burns, bruises, open wounds, snake bites, and toothaches. It could also be used to treat ulcers, stomach inflammation, tuberculosis, jaundice and other liver diseases, syphilis, and menstrual problems.
Sotol Leaves
Sotol Leaves

NPS Photo/ J. Smith

Sotol (Desert Spoon)

Dasylirion wheeleri

At first look, the Sotol looks like the banana Yucca or Parry's agave; they all have a similar rosette leaf arrangement. The Sotol's long, narrow, flattened leaves have barbed edges, a frayed point, and flare into a spoon-like shape at their base. It may produce a bloom stalk and flower cluster every year, given favorable conditions.

- The flower stalks were eaten as greens. The leaf mass "heart" was eaten cooked or steamed, shredded, fermented or distilled.
- The leaves were woven into sleeping mats, baskets, and hats. Flower stalks were used for cradleboard backs, as a source of material for basketry, mats, and for ceremonial purposes.
- Split sotol stalks were used in constructing roofs.
Banana Yucca Flower
Flowering Banana Yucca

NPS Photo/ J. Smith


Yucca baccata

Yuccas have a rosette arrangement of semisucculent or nonsucculent leaves. The leaves are arranged spirally at the base of the stem. Individual white fibers along the leaves will curl. Unlike an agave, most yuccas will bloom more than once. They have white, waxy, bell-shapped flowers followed by large, fleshy, banana-like fruit.

- The flowers, flower stalks, fruit, and seeds could be eaten raw, baked, boiled, dried, or ground into flower. The fruit was often pounded, dried and made into cakes for storing.
- Soap and shampoo were important products from this plant. Roots were pounded and soaked in water to make suds for washing hair and clothes, and for ritual cleansing.
- Fibers were used for sandals, baskets, matting, cordage, fabric, fishing, carrying nets, head straps, as a base for feather and fur cloth, and in brooms/ brushes for hair, paint, dusting, and pot scrubbing.

Last updated: July 14, 2017

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