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Uses of Cacti

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 “One of the most valuable fruits grown in our Western Indies is the cactus pear, produce of equal value to gold and silver," - King Philip III of Spain, 1620 (Carmen, 2013).







King Philip III of Spain

Painting by Diego Velazquez, 1631-36

Prado Museum, Madrid



All true cacti and succulents are safe to eat; of which some are bitter in taste, some taste better after cooking, and most have to peel off or otherwise have their spines removed before they eaten.

The history of utilization of cactus particularly the Opuntia sp. (along with maize and Agave sp.) has been recorded in pre-Hispanic Mexico as agricultural economy in Aztec empire. Now the cacti are part of natural landscape and agricultural systems in many regions of the world in semi-arid zones.

Bread of poor: Cacti have long been considered an important nutritional source in Latin America (bread of the poor) among which Opuntia sp. has gained highest economic importance worldwide (Feugang, 2006). During drought periods, the despined shrub of Opuntia ficus indica cactus (Indian Fig) plays a significant role in providing valuable nutrients for farming bovine, ovine and caprine animals.

The consumption of cactus pear (cladode) is a part of Mexican culture, where the cactus pads are known as nopales or pencas when whole, or nopalitos when cut into small pieces or fresh young cladoded from 3 0 4 weeks of age. They are served with meals, similar to beans (Stintzing, 2005).

Fruit production: The cacti with eatable fruits are often cultivated as fruit gardens near houses and gardens/fields. The fruits of mature Carnegia gigantica (Saguaro) are also edible (Rebecca et. al., 2006). It is illegal to move the plants as it is known as the elegant symbol of Southwestern desert in United States because it mature after decades. Similar to Saguaro, Organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) is smaller than saguaro which usually grows at the base of plant rather than farther up to main trunk. It has lavender flowers and red fruits. Fruits of organ pipe are known as ‘pitahaya dulce’ and are golf ball sized. The fruits of organ pipe cactus are edible (Shetty, 2012). The fruits of Strawberry Hedgehog (Echinocereus enneacanthus) and Straw-cloured Hedgehog (E. stramineus) are similar to strawberries (Shetty, 2012).

The barrel cactus fruits (Ferocactus hamatacanthus), one of the legends of America Wild West, can be eaten raw. It has no spines i.e. why easy to handle. The flowers and buds are also edible. It can be cut open, pulp squeezed to obtain water that would keep you alive in the desert. Although water obtained from barrel cactus is bitter in taste but is better than die in thirst. The juicy, brown fruit is used as lemons and limes (Shetty, 2012).

Dragon fruit (Hylocereus undatus) the night blooming cereus with long fleshy leaves and bright red or yellow fruit with a white or red center and black crunchy seeds with high nutritional value. This plant has large, fragrant white flowers that only bloom at night. It is eaten raw or made into wine and other drinks (Shetty, 2012).

Cacti as forage: Cacti particularly Opuntia sp. are used as forage for livestock. Adult cattle can consume 15 to 40 kg of fresh cladodes per day per adult cattle. Under drier conditions they may consume up to 90 kg per day. The sheep and goats consume 3 to 9 kg per day. In rainy season the daily consumption may decrease if other sources of forage such as grasses, alfalfa (green or dry), sorghum, maize or cottonseed meal or any other available fodder are available. The cacti particularly the opuntias are extremely important for wildlife probably even more than for domestic animals, supporting the rich fauna of the Chihuahua desert (Lopez-Garcia, 2001).

Employment: Mexico is the main cactus pear producing country and thus providing employment in this field. In Mexico, 345000 tons of cacti are produced in 70000 hectors per annum.

Uses of cacti in pharmaceuticals: Stems and flowers of Selenicereus grandiflorus (Night Blooming Cereus) processed into homeopathic medicine for urinary tract infections and angina. It has digitalis-like property on the heart (Shetty, 2012). San Pedro Cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi) contains mescaline, hallucigenic drug capable of inducing visions (Shetty, 2012). The fruits of Barbados gooseberry (Pereskia aculeatia) are slightly acidic and are used in jellies and preservatives (Shetty, 2012).

The phytochemical analysis of Opuntia ficus indica reveals that the acidity content and pH are 0.02% and 6.4-6.5 respectively. The sugar content (mainly glucose and fructose) 11-12%, L-ascorbic acid 31-38 mg/100 g, Manganese 1.7-2.9 ppm, Iron 0.6-1.2 ppm and Zinc 0.3-0.4 ppm (Sergio et. al., 2000).

Prevention of soil erosion: They are utilized in programs to prevent soil erosion and to combat desertification. The cacti have a great capacity for adaptation, growing in severely degraded soils which are inadequate for other crops and are ideal for responding to global environmental changes such as the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. They are also important as cover in arid and semi-arid areas because they can survive and spread under conditions of scarce and erratic rainfall and high temperatures and can play an important role in the protection of local fauna (Reynolds, 2001). Cacti are also used as live fence to protect agricultural fields.

Combating desertification: The cacti can grow in adverse conditions and produce eatables, medicines and many others items are prepared from cacti. Therefore, there is a need to spread the knowledge of the current and potential uses of cacti stressing their functions as a biological barrier to reduce the impact of desertification and their adaptive responses to the expected global inincrease of carbon dioxide through programs of integrated development, extension and technical assistance as an essential adaptation tool to combat desertification (Nefzaoui and Salem 2001).

Home Furniture: The skelton of dead plants of Opuntia spinosior (cane cholla) are used for making furniture (Shetty, 2012).

Fashion Designing: The bur-like fruit of Pachycereus pecte-aboriginum (Hairbrush Cactus) is used as a hairbrush by Indians (Shetty, 2012). The spines of Barrel Cacti (Echinocactus sp.) were fashioned into phonograph needles and fishhooks (Shetty, 2012).

Cacti in home decoration: Like other botanical plants, cacti are also used to decorate the home or home gardens. The potted cacti are placed in the open space of home. They are placed at indoors as well as outdoors. Plants appear to reduce airborne microbes and increase humidity. Indoor plants also brighten the room, providing a cheerful sight for those grey and often dreary winter days. And, another big benefit of indoor gardening is there is nothing more relaxing than gardening. Indoor plants are an important part of decor in homes, offices and other buildings. Many plants in your indoor houseplants make for good outdoor garden in the summer too (Cantor and Buta 2011).

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