Guest Author - Connie Krochmal
Though cacti and succulents are often considered to be landscape plants, these have many other uses. They were used historically in both the Old and New World.
Succulents from other areas of the world were originally introduced to European as medicinal plants.
As far back as 2500 B.C. a number of the succulents were used in Greece for soap-making. Among these soapy plants were the hen-and-chicks, the stonecrops, and the spurges as well as the aloes.
Latex and the milky sap from some of the spurges were used for medicinal purposes. Writings dating from around 460 B.C. recorded these uses.
Some of the succulents appeared in early floral engravings. Among these were the aeoniums, the century plants, stonecrops, aloe, and yucca.
As far back as biblical times, the aloe was favored as a medicinal plant. It served as a cathartic. It was also used for treatment of atomic radiation burns.
The prickly pear plants have long been used as a cattle feed. They also became the source of the brilliant red dye called cochineal. The dye actually comes from insects that feed on the plants. Historically, this dye was used by the Aztecs. After Europeans arrived in the New World, they established cochineal dye industries in various other locations, including the Canary Islands.
The plants have also been cultivated for their edible fruits. Prickly pear plants begin bearing fruits about three years after they’re planted. The spines must be scraped from the fruits before eating. Technically, the fruits are considered a berry. These are usually dark reddish-purple when ripe.
Candelilla wax is obtained from the stems of Euphorbia antisyphilitica. Typically, this is mixed with paraffin to make candles.
The furcraeas are related to the agaves. Native to the New World, these are grown as a source of fiber extracted from the leaves. The fiber is used for various purposes like hammocks, rope, twine, and the like.
Various kinds of snake plants also yield fiber as well. This is often called bowstring hemp.
The agaves have been used for various purposes. They’re used for cattle feed, and are among the most important fiber plants. Sisal is extracted from the leaves of various species. Much of this is from Mexico though the crop is also grown in other parts of the world now.
Agaves are also the source of several drinks. The rich sugary sap is used as a low glycemic sweetener. Tequila is derived from one species of agave. This is distilled from the roasted bases of the plants. The tequila industry in Mexico dates from the 1600’s.
Pulque is a fermented beverage made from the juice of various agave specie