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Highlights from Cacti History

The history and folklore of cacti is fascinating. Here are just a few highlights.

Fossil records dating from around 50 million years ago indicate that these plants have been around since the Eocene epoch. These fossils were found in
Colorado and Utah.

Individual cactus plants can live to a ripe old ageóseveral hundred years at least. While the plant itself may be old, some individual cells within the cactus plant can also be long-lived. The parenchyma cells are spherical, and can live for over a hundred years. These specialized cells can contain various plant chemicals or substances, such as tannins and oils as well as grains of starch.

The history of cacti hasnít always been light hearted. The plants have been used for some rather bizarre or gruesome purposes at times. Historians say that in Mexico Aztec priests selected large specimens of the globe-like barrel cactus to serve as sacrificial tables during human sacrifices. The victimsí hearts were cut out as an offering to the god of war.

According to historical records, the Penitentes used pieces of the cholla cactus to beat their backs with during the celebrations leading up to the Easter week festivities.

Following the European conquests in the New World, cacti made their way across the ocean. Unlike some delicate plants, these were easy to ship and
survived long voyages because they didnít dry out. Sketches of the cacti began showing up in the European herbals by the 16th century or so.

The word cactus comes from the original Greek word, kaktos. This was defined by Theophrastus as a prickly or bristly plant. Cactus was chosen by Linnaeus as the family name for this group of plants. In this group, he lumped all the species that were known at that time.

At first, most cacti were really connoisseur plants that only the wealthy European or British gardeners could afford. This was especially true for tender species that needed protection from cold winters.

Historically, the peyote served a crucial role during cult ceremonies. This plant contains hallucinogenic ingredients.

The folklore of the individual species is also very interesting. The name Mammillaria means warmth.

The Mexicans adopted the prickly pear as their national flower. It is also featured in their national coat of arms.


The saguaro became the state flower for Arizona, while the hedgehog cactus was selected by New Mexico as its state flower.

The saguaro has played an important role in Native American culture. Indigenous people revered this plant partly because it was so slow growing.

The prickly pears have served as a food source since ancient times.

According to historians, cacti were responsible for the American victory during the Battle of San Pasqual. Led by Kerney, the Americans were protected by a thicket of prickly pears. The Spaniardsí horses refused to go near the plants.

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