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Home > Types of Plants > Cacti and other succulents
Cacti and other succulents
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Cacti Plants with green leaves that are left in the sun without water ordinarily flag in a few hours, and die within a few days. Plants that live in a hot dry climate, however, manage to survive, because they are able to adapt themselves to their environment by, for instance, passing the dry seasons as leafless shrubs, as dry bulbs, or as seeds. Cactii and other succulent plants store moisture in the tissues in their stems or leaves. Succulent plants are not found in very dry areas, but in semi- deserts where there are long, dry periods alternating with shorter, wet ones. When rain falls, the plant tissues tend to swell and the moisture is retained in the plant if it has been adapted to prevent evaporation, either by a protective covering such as a layer or wax or hairs, or by a reduction of the surface area. Since the smallest surface area for a given volume is a sphere, succulent plants tend to be spherical.

Many of the cacti are of this form, at least when young. The stem is swollen but there are no leaves, or only a few small ones, when growth begins each year, and these soon fall. In an ordinary plant, the leaves contain a green substance (chlorophyll) by means of which, in the presence of daylight, the plant can make use of the various food materials

A succulent is a plant which has thick leaves or stems, which can store water for the plant above the soil surface. It need not be confused with a tuber or a bulb which stores water and food material and nourishes the plant below the soil surface. Broadly speaking, a cactus is a succulent with thorns or areoles. The distinction however between as cactus and other succulents is not so absolute and there is some cacti without thorns. Many families of plants contain succulent (i.e. water storing) species that have adapted to the arid climates of deserts and semi-deserts. Many of these habitats are associated with high day-time temperatures and special mechanisms have evolved to collect and conserve the limited moisture that is available, sometimes only from dews, mists and fogs. Convergent evolution has often resulted in similar solutions to the problems of living in a harsh environment, and it may be obvious that similar looking plants belong to different families only when they are flowering. Sadly, like many other flora and fauna, succulent plants are under pressure throughout the world from encroaching urbanisation, agriculture and the depredations of widespread non-indigenous livestock such as goats. While these pressures may be inevitable, there is much that succulent plant enthusiasts can do to promote the conservation and survival of this interesting group of plants.

Cacti have gained popularity because of their exciting shapes, heavenly blooms and ease of cultivation. They can thrive under most indifferent conditions. Plants in the cereus group example cereus, carnegiea or cephalocereus almost grow like large trees in their natural habitat while hylocereus or selenicereus are climbers and attain unimaginable heights. Opuntias develop in large bushes.

Cacti as seen under natural conditions growing on trees are known as epiphytic cacti. Some of the cereus group which throw-up aerial roots, phyllocactus, epiphyllum, and similar ones belong to this group. They are often found growing on nothing but rotten leaves in forks of trees.
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