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Cactus

CACTUS

CACTUS. Cacti are succulent perennials that are native to arid and semi-arid regions and are cultivated extensively, except where freezes regularly occur. The land area devoted to cactus cultivation in 2001 was about 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres), mostly for fodder, and over half of which was in northern Africa and northeastern Brazil. Cacti are also cultivated in over twenty countries for their fruits, which commercially fall into three categories: cactus pears, which are the fruits of the prickly pear Opuntia ficus-indica and certain other cacti with flat stems (cladodes), and represent over 90% of the cactus fruits sold; pitahayas, which are the fruits of vine cacti in the genera Hylocereus and Selenicereus ; and pitayas, which are the fruits of columnar cacti. Young cladodes are consumed as a vegetable (nopalitos), particularly in Mexico. Nearly all cacti employ a photosynthetic pathway known as Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), in which the stomates (shoot pores that allow CO2 entry) open primarily at night, when temperatures are lower and water loss is lower than for the overwhelming majority of plants, whose stomates open during the daytime. The best known edible CAM plant is pineapple, which is cultivated on about half as much area as cacti. Because of their lower water loss, cacti and other CAM plants thrive in dry regions (and also require little or no irrigation when cultivated in other regions.

History

Although evidence for cacti in human diets goes back more than 8,000 years in present-day Mexico, worldwide consumption has developed only in the last few hundred years. Cacti were introduced into Europe in 1495 from the second trip of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Opuntia ficus-indica spread across the Mediterranean region in the sixteenth century, where it readily grew under the local semi-arid conditions. Also in the sixteenth century, Spaniards introduced Hylocereus undatus into the Philippines, whence it spread throughout southeast Asia. In the nineteenth century, it became established in Viet Nam and is now extensively cultivated in the Mekong Delta, where its tasty fruit with red peel and white pulp is called "dragon fruit." Also in the nineteenth century, the columnar Stenocereus queretaroensis was domesticated in Jalisco, Mexico. None of these species received much agronomic attention until the end of the twentieth century, and even then the money for research and development was meager. Both fruit crops and young cladodes used as vegetables require much hand labor. Although machines have been developed to remove the irritating small spines (termed "glochids") from cactus pears, many improvements in their cultivation await future research.

Fruits

Fruits of many cacti are edible. Indeed, the Seri Indians of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico consumed fruits from over twenty species, including those of the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea ), used by various Native Americans for fruits and wine. Fruits collected from the wild influenced the species selected for domestication. Such selections involved various species of Opuntia in Mexico, eventually leading to the presently planted cultivars.

Cactus pear. The fruits of Opuntia ficus-indica and a few other prickly pears are harvested in the summer from plants that are one to three meters tall. Harvest can be delayed by removing the early flowers, as is commonly done in Sicily, leading to a second harvest in the autumn that is more valuable per fruit due to lessened competition from other species. One-year-old cladodes can bear five to fifteen fruits each; terminal cladodes with fewer fruits tend to bear larger ones (over 150 g each), which command higher prices. After harvesting, the fruits must have the glochids removed mechanically, after which they are often packaged by color and weight. Fruits with red pulp are prized in the United States and certain European countries, whereas greenish pulp for mature fruits is generally preferred in Mexico. Although sold in supermarkets worldwide, fruits are also sold by street vendors, who slice the peel and provide the exposed pulp directly to the consumer. The relatively large seeds are a detriment to fruit consumption by many, but the seeds are harmless and readily swallowed by aficionados.

The country with the greatest land area devoted to cactus pear cultivation is Mexico (Table 1). Annual production can be over fifteen tons fresh weight per hectare under intensive management. In Mexico, Sicily, Israel, and the United States, most production is from commercial plantations, whereas in other Latin American countries and in northern Africa, a large amount of the fruit is collected from hedges and other informal plantings.

Pitahayas and pitayas. The most widely cultivated pitahaya is Hylocereus undatus, which in 2001 was cultivated on about 12,000 hectares in many countries, including Viet Nam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala,

Land areas and harvests for fruit production by Opuntia ficus-indica and closely related species in 2001
Country Area (hectares) Annual harvest (tons fresh weight)
Argentina 900 8,000
Bolivia 1,300 3,500
Chile 1,200 9,000
Israel 400 7,000
Italy 7,500 80,000
Mexico 70,000 400,000
Northern Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia) ~20,000
South Africa 200 1,500
United States 200 3,600

Peru, Colombia, and Israel. It is a vine that is trained to grow on posts, trellises, or arbors. Its relatively large fruits (generally 250 to 500 g) are harvested after the peel, which has no spines or glochids, turns red. The pulp is

whitish with small black seeds. Other species of Hylocereus and Selenicereus megalanthus have peels and pulps of various colors, leading to a wide choice of tasty and visually appealing fruits.

Although their cultivation is expanding rapidly, in 2001 pitayas were harvested on only about 3,000 hectares worldwide, mostly in Mexico, from species like Cereus peruvianus, and especially Stenocereus queretaroensis and other Stenocereus species. Fruits grow along the main stem and branches about two to six meters above the ground, requiring a pole with a basket-like attachment for harvest of individual fruits. Fruits of Stenocereus queretaroensis have an attractive and tasty dark red or purple pulp with small seeds (like those in kiwis) that are easily swallowed. However, the fruits tend to split within two or three days after harvest, requiring rapid local consumption.

Vegetables

Tender young cladodes about 10 to 15 cm long of Opuntia ficus-indica, Opuntia robusta, and a few related species are used in Mexico as nopalitos. About 6,000 hectares were cultivated for this purpose in 2001, and nopalitos are also prepared from plants in the wild or growing around houses, or as hedges. The raised portions of the stem containing spines and glochids are readily removed with a knife or by machine. The cladodes are then generally sliced or diced and blanched in a weak saline solution for a few minutes to remove excess mucilage. After draining, the material can be cooked, yielding a vegetable with a taste not unlike string beans or okra. Because of their high fructose and mucilage content, nopalitos are highly recommended for people with type II diabetes. Often the blanched material is pickled and used as a relish or in salads. More than thirty companies sold pickled nopalitos in Mexico in 2001, and this product is in supermarkets worldwide.

Other Uses

Other uses of cacti range from candy made from the stems of barrel cacti that have been infused with a sugar solution to peyote from dried stems of Lophophora williamsii, used by Native Americans for ceremonial purposes. Flowers have been used for medicinal purposes and to make perfume. The seeds of cacti such as Opuntia ficus-indica have been dried, ground, and then used as a flavoring paste for cooking. Carminic acid, an important red dye for food coloring, can be extracted from dried cochineal insects that feed on Opuntia ficus-indica. Although most cactus pears are consumed fresh, sorbets and marmalades are also prepared from the fruits. The strained pulp of fresh fruits is used as a fruit drink or fermented to make wine. Fruits of cactus pears are also partially dried and sold in brick-sized blocks in Mexico. More than thirty brands of dried and powdered cladodes are sold in Mexico as a dietary supplement. The range of edible products from cacti is indeed great and their use is steadily increasing, as more people become willing to try new and natural foods, and growers search for crops that do not need irrigation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Mizrahi, Yosef, Avinoam Nerd, and Park S. Nobel. "Cacti as Crops." In Horticultural Reviews 18 (1997): 291319.

Nobel, Park S. Los Incomparables Agaves y Cactos. Translated by Edmundo Garcia Moya. Mexico City: Editorial Trillas, 1998.

Nobel, Park S. Remarkable Agaves and Cacti. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Nobel, Park S., editor. Cacti : Biology and Uses. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2002.

Valles Septién, Carmen, editor. Succulentas Mexicanas/Cactáceas. Mexico City: CVS Publicaciones, 1997.

Park S. Nobel

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cactus

cactus, any plant of the family Cactaceae, a large group of succulents found almost entirely in the New World. A cactus plant is conspicuous for its fleshy green stem, which performs the functions of leaves (commonly insignificant or absent), and for the spines (not always present) of various colors, shapes, and arrangements. Cactus flowers are notably delicate in appearance although usually large and showy; they are commonly yellow, white, or shades of red and purple. Many species are pollinated by bats. Cactus fruits are berries and are usually edible. A cactus plant appears on the coat of arms of Mexico, and the blossom of the giant cactus, or saguaro (Cereus giganteus), is the state flower of Arizona.

The plants vary from small, round globes to epiphytes, vines, and large treelike forms. The reduced leaf surface, the enlarged fleshy stem, which is well fitted to store water and to retain it, and the ramified and extensive root system (much reduced in cultivated cacti) make the plant particularly adapted to regions of high temperature and long dry periods. Cacti are not restricted to desert regions, however, for in America they range from the tropics into Canada.

Most cacti bloom in the spring for a very short period, sometimes for only a few hours. The blossoms are noticeably sensitive to light, and often different species blossom only at specific times of the day. One of the most famous of the cacti is the night-blooming cereus usually classified as Selenicereus or C. grandiflora (several other night-blooming cactus species bear the same common name). Its fragrant blossoms unfold at a visible rate after sunset and last only a single night. In many of its native habitats the flowering of this cactus is celebrated with festivals.

Economic Importance

The largest cactus genus is Opuntia, jointed-stemmed species recognizable by the fleshy stems made up of either cylindrical (in the cane cacti and the chollas) or flattened (in the prickly pears) joints called pads. The large pear-shaped berries of several of these species are edible, e.g., the cultivated varieties of the Indian fig and the tuna. This fruit is common in Mexican markets; the plants have been widely naturalized in the Mediterranean countries, Australia, and elsewhere as a source of food. Most opuntias grow so rapidly to a large and ungainly size that they are unsuitable for cultivation as ornamentals, and in the wild often become weeds.

However, the major economic importance of the cactus family is in the florists' trade. Among those cultivated for their showy blossoms are the Christmas cactus (Zygocactus) and species of Echinocereus and of Epiphyllum, the orchid cactus. The pincushion cacti (Mammillaria), the golden ball cactus (Echinocactus), and the hedgehog cactus (Echinopsis) are among the many grown as oddities for their curious appearance.

The nopal (Nopalea coccinellifera) is the cactus traditionally cultivated as a host for the cochineal insect, and the hallucinatory drug mescaline occurs in the genera Lophophora (peyote) and Trichocereus. Other cacti are used as a substitute for wood, as stock feed, and for hedges.

Classification

Cactus is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Caryophyllales, family Cactaceae.

Bibliography

See L. Benson, The Cacti of the United States and Canada (1982) and A. C. Gibson and P. S. Nobel, The Cactus Primer (1986).

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cactus

cactus Any of 2000 or so species of succulents, found particularly in hot desert regions of the Western Hemisphere. A cactus' long roots enable it to absorb moisture from desert terrains and the fleshy green stem is adapted for water storage with a waxy coating to restrict evaporation. Stems are usually spiny, cylindrical and branched. Cactus flowers are usually borne singly in a wide range of colours. Height: from less than 2.5cm (1in) to more than 15m (50ft). See also xerophyte

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cactus

cac·tus / ˈkaktəs/ • n. (pl. cacti / ˈkakˌtī; -ˌtē/ or cactuses ) a succulent New World plant (family Cactaceae), chiefly of arid regions, with a thick, fleshy stem that typically bears spines and has brilliantly colored flowers.

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cactus

cactus †cardoon XVII; prickly plant with thick fleshy stems XVIII. — L. — Gr. káktos cardoon or Spanish artichoke (of Sicily); the name was adopted by Linnaeus for a genus of entirely different prickly plants.

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cactus

cactus •cactus • saltus • Diophantus • Sanctus •Rastus, Theophrastusaltostratus, cirrostratus, nimbostratus, stratus •conspectus, prospectus •momentous, portentous •asbestos, Festus •apparatus, Donatus, hiatus, status •acetous, boletus, Cetus, Epictetus, fetus, Miletus, quietus •Hephaestus •Benedictus, ictus, rictus •Quintus • linctus • eucalyptus • cistus •coitus •circuitous, fortuitous, gratuitous •Hippolytus • calamitous • tinnitus •Iapetus • crepitus •precipitous, serendipitous •impetus • emeritus • spiritous •Democritus, Theocritus •Tacitus • necessitous •duplicitous, felicitous, solicitous •covetous •iniquitous, ubiquitous •detritus, Heraclitus, Polyclitus, Titus, Vitus •Pocahontas, PontusPlautus, tortoise •cobaltous •Duns Scotus, lotus •hostess •arbutus, Brutus •Eustace • conductus • cultus •coitus interruptus • Augustus •riotous • Herodotus • Oireachtas

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