What Is Special About A Cactus? Typical Characteristics Of A Cactus

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These thorny succulents that complement any environment always have and up to this day remain a wonder to humans as well as animals in the wild. A hungry creature will eat anything in its path to stay alive, and as such, they are continually looking for food. The ones that have tried extracting the juices from this plant have done it at their own risk. Most of the time, coming out of the ordeal with nothing but painful stabs in their mouths and paws by the sharp spikes the cactus plant has.

The cacti species has been widely researched to find what makes them worthy of having a whole family named in its honor. What sets them apart from most flora is the physical outlook that no other plant on the planet possesses. And in this piece, we shall look into more features that make these succulents unique and widely loved.

What Is Special About A Cactus?
Variety of short cacti in planters @tara_desert

They Grow Anywhere and Everywhere

Contrary to belief, cacti can be grown in almost all climates in the world and not only the desert climate. This is supported by the fact that some species have been found to thrive in the rainforests and colder environments in different parts of the world. Their resilience to the harsh conditions as experienced in the deserts makes them even more popular. Whatever the location they are brought up in, they find ways to survive, thrive, and produce. As long as they have all their nutritional needs met- in the desert or your backyard, they will grow. Cacti are not fussy plants.

Check out our article about “The Rounded Ball Cactus— Parodia Magnifica” for a look at an amazing cactus variety you probably have not seen before!

They Are Nocturnal Plants

Humans are wired differently, and as you will see, plants too. Some people are morning persons, and others aren’t. Others are more productive during the day and others during the night. Animals also behave the same, some hunt at night and others during the day. And the cacti family are loyal members of the night club. The cacti open their stomata during the night as opposed to a majority of plants. If they open the pores during the day, they will lose most of the water they hold within their tissues, and this will mean a shorter life span. They do prefer the night time because the temperatures are cooler, and the calmer breeze helps them retain most of their water storage.

They Are Stem Succulents

Most succulents are characterized by the fact that they have thick leaves as their primary water storage tanks. But this is not the case when it comes to the cactus. To begin with, cacti do not have leaves. They instead have another site to store the water they absorb; otherwise, they wouldn’t be here today. Their swollen stem takes up this role, which explains why they are thick, round, and tight to touch. Some even look like they are almost bursting out. Well, now you know why their stems look that way; they are the plant’s primary water reservoir.

Take a look at our piece “How Often To Water Cactus” and see techniques we came up with to better water your cactus.

Their Unique Growth Habits

Cacti display quite an array of different growing patterns that make them very bizarre. The first growth habit is the arborescent cacti, which grow like a tree with a single trunk topped up by several branches. The second type is the columnar cacti that consist of an erect and cylindrical-shaped stem. The stems may or may not be branched, depending on the species. Smaller versions are the ones that grow in a globular manner. These are the ball-shaped shorter and smaller versions of the columnar cacti. The cactus that grow in this pattern are mostly solitary succulents or may develop several clusters that may be sharing the same root.

Other cacti growing in tropical regions develop as epiphytes, which are plants that grow on other plants deriving their nutrients from the surrounding air. Others emerge as climbers that can grow to enormous sizes. These kinds usually have flattened stems with little or no spines.


What Is Special About A Cactus?
A thick-stemmed and thorny cactus @cappucinoforpt

Unique Physical Cacti Characteristics

Specialized skin surface

The cacti have a waxy, shiny skin that helps them survive the harsh weather conditions in some of their natural habitats. The coating on the skin is ribbed and covers the exterior of most cacti species. The ribs allow the crop to easily stretch without breaking the surface when the plant absorbs water during the rainy season. The ribs also provide some shade to the plant’s skin. The waxy, shiny texture works towards reducing the rate at which evaporation is taking place. 

The spines

Well, the needles are perhaps the most known feature that characterizes a cactus as one. The sharp prickly features are not only for aesthetics but also helps the plant to survive. One of the ways it has done so is by taking the place of leaves when compared to other plants. The reduced number or lack thereof the leaves means the plant has fewer stomata, which consequently means less water loss. Secondly, the spines protect the plant from animals and humans from interfering with it. The needles also help the succulent shed its skin and insulating the crop during the cold, dry weather.

In some cactus, these spines help collect rainwater by directing the droplets towards the plant’s roots. The needles also provide shade to the succulent from the hot glazing sun.

What Is Special About A Cactus?
Different cacti species @kaktusyesilii

Specialized root system

Cacti plants have a somewhat different root system as compared to the other flora found growing in harsh conditions. As opposed to having deep roots, they have an extensive, shallow root system that spread widely to all directions and sit right below the surface. Whenever there is a downpour, torrential, or light, the roots absorb the water from the surfaces above them faster and more efficiently. These roots grow exponentially during these wet times, but when it gets drier, they wither and break off from the parent plant to conserve water further.

Their flowers 

All cactus species have flowerets that grow at least once in their growth cycle. Some get flowers very early in their infancy and some take months and years to develop. Some even never get to bloom because of the conditions they are exposed to in their habitats. Well, the flowering part is not what makes them unique but how the individual flowers look like. The flowers have both the petals and the sepals combined, and they have numerous stamens around a multi-lobed stigma. The petals are at least ten in number. The flowers bloom in different sizes and colors, all dependent on the species.

Some of these flowers develop into fruits that both humans and animals can eat, although one should take caution, as some of these fruits are poisonous and not safe for consumption.

Be sure to not miss our article “Why is the Prickly Pear Cactus One of the Most Popular Cacti?” to see this cactus. See why it’s so popular!


An areole is a raised structure on the surface of the cactus that the spines originate from. This is the distinguishing trait that only the cactus family possesses. These parts of the plant are circular or oval-shaped; they appear like raised fusion-discs and are fully covered by small hairs or sharp spikes. Some other plants have spines, but if they do not come from an areola, they are not cacti.

What Is Special About A Cactus?
Potted cacti @nannipereira

The cactus species never ceases to amaze, and if you were to house all the types in your backyard, you would run out of space. The traits mentioned earlier should, with no doubt, convince you that the cacti are a unique and special family of plants. With their exotic-looking features, any setting should be glad to host these wonders of nature.

Thank you for reading! Don’t run out of cactus content! Check out more from the cactus species like “Everything You Need to Know About the Brain Cactus” or “Does the Bunny Cactus Hop?” for more fun cactus facts and info.

If you liked this read, you’re going to love our full in-depth ebooks! With so many of our succulent lovers asking for more, we listened and can’t wait to share it with you here! With our very detailed ebooks, you’ll get more information than these short articles, some ebooks are 30+ pages, perfect for a weekend read. 

Happy Planting!

Succulent City chief editor


Succulent City

Hey everyone! Welcome to Succulent City! We are all about succulents, cacti, and a bit about air plants. Ten years back, in 2013, we began the journey with succulents. It started as a simple hobby, crafting and selling charming succulent-themed pins and decorations. But as time passed, our fascination with these remarkable plants grew, and we gained extensive knowledge about them. Therefore, Succulent City is the blog as you see it is now. Enjoy your visit and happly planting!

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Posted in Cacti