How Cacti Survive: Surprising Strategies Quench Thirst

A saguaro cactus is silhouetted as the sun sets over the Southwestern desert Tuesday, May 9, 2006, in Picacho Peak, Ariz. AP Photo/Matt York

Cacti have can be found in rain forests and as far north as Canada. But it is their ability to thrive in the desert, where rain falls infrequently and unpredictably, that is their most remarkable trait.

How do they do it?

By working nights, using alternative methods to generate energy and keeping some prickly tricks up their arms.

"The cacti evolved a whole suite of adaptations to survive living in the desert," said plant evolutionary biologist Erika Edwards.

Edwards and Michael Donoghue of Yale University recently determined that the Pereskia genus of leafy shrubs and trees were the first plants to exhibit some of these water-saving traits, about 20 million years ago.

The findings were published in the June issue of the journal American Naturalist.

Risky business

All plants have stomata, little pores in their skin that open and close to collect carbon dioxide. During photosynthesis, plants turn the collected carbon dioxide into food in the form of sugars. The process is troublesome in the desert because water escapes from the pores each time they open.

"If you're trying to conserve water, it's risky business to open the pores and lose water," Edwards told LiveScience.

While most plants open up their stomata during the day, cacti and other nocturnal plants such as the agaves and aloes open their pores at night.

The cooler temperatures, lack of sun, and calmer breezes help cacti retain water.

Once the sun rises, the plant goes to work making sugars.

Other useful traits

Cacti have also developed succulent tissue, waxy skin, prickly spines, and a specialized root system to take every advantage in their harsh ecosystems.

  • The stem acts as a reservoir; the plant will expand and contract depending on the amount of water it holds.
  • The skin's waxy coating helps retain moisture.
  • The pointy spines protect against thirsty animals looking for a free drink.

In some cacti, spines also collect rainwater and funnel precious drops to the plant's roots.

Surprising tactic

You might think cacti would grow deep roots to search for a constant supply of groundwater. Instead, they often develop extensive, shallow root systems that sit just under the surface of the Earth and can extend several feet away from the plant, ready to absorb as much water as possible.

When it rains, cacti shoot out more roots. During dry periods, roots will shrivel up and break off to conserve the plant's water supply. 

"The cactus becomes more hydrated than the soil it's growing in," Edwards said. "It runs the risk of losing water to the soil, so it has to disconnect itself from the soil."

Leafy cacti, such as the Pereskia, and other plants have developed similar water-conserving traits and make their home in the desert, even without the anatomical specializations of the familiar leafless cacti.

"It's good evidence that it's a successful strategy," Edwards said. "The plants do really well in these environments."

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Corey Binns lives in Northern California and writes about science, health, parenting, and social change. In addition to writing for Live Science, she's contributed to publications including Popular Science,, Scholastic, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review as well as others. She's also produced stories for NPR’s Science Friday and Sundance Channel. She studied biology at Brown University and earned a Master's degree in science journalism from NYU. The Association of Health Care Journalists named her a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Health Journalism Fellow in 2009. She has chased tornadoes and lived to tell the tale.