Golden rainbow cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus), a hedgehog cactus, growing in the desert …—© Robert and Linda Mitchell

Any of the flowering plants that make up the family Cactaceae, containing about 1,650 species, native through most of North and South America, with the greatest number and variety in Mexico. Cacti are succulent perennials. Most live in and are well adapted to dry regions. Cacti generally have thick herbaceous or woody stems containing chlorophyll. Leaves usually are absent or greatly reduced, minimizing the surface area from which water can be lost; the stem is the site of photosynthesis. The generally thin, fibrous, shallow root systems range widely in area to absorb superficial moisture. Cacti vary greatly in size and appearance, from buttonlike peyote and low clumps of prickly pear and hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus) to the upright columns of barrel cacti (Ferocactus and Echinocactus) and the imposing saguaro. Cacti can be distinguished from other succulent plants by the presence of small cushionlike structures (areoles) from which, in almost all species, spines arise, as do flowers, branches, and leaves (when present). Flowers, often large and colourful, are usually solitary. Cacti are widely cultivated as ornamentals. Various species, notably prickly pears and chollas, are cultivated as food. Barrel cacti are an emergency source of water for people.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
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