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History of Cacti & Some Other Succulents in North America

Evolutionary history

There are only a few known fossils of cacti, so geographical distribution gives us some evidence. Except for a relatively recent spread of Rhipsalis baccifera which grows in Africa and Sri Lanka, cacti are plants of South America and the mainly southern regions of North America. This suggests cacti must have evolved after the ancient continent of Gondwana split into South America and Africa. This occurred during the Early Cretaceous, around 135 million years ago.

The volcanic Isthmus of Panama rose up from the sea floor and bridged the formerly separated continents of North and South America. Plants and animals migrated from one continent to the other. This migration peaked dramatically around three million years ago during the Piacenzian age.

Cacti are thus native to the Americas, ranging from Patagonia in the south to parts of western Canada in the north.
(01a-Distribution) The current species diversity of cacti is thought to have occurred only in the last 10 to 5 million years (from the late Miocene into the Pliocene).

There is still controversy as to the precise dates when humans first entered those areas of the New World where cacti are commonly found. An archaeological site in Chile has been dated to around 15,000 years ago, suggesting cacti would have been encountered before then. Early evidence of the use of cacti includes cave paintings in the Serra da Capivara in Brazil, and seeds found in ancient waste dumps in Mexico and Peru, with dates estimated at 12,000 to 9,000 years ago.

Other succulent plants, such as the Aizoaceae in South Africa, the Didiereaceae in Madagascar and the genus Agave in the Americas, appear to have diversified at the same time, which coincided with a global expansion of arid environments. Agave is is placed in the subfamily Agavoideae of the Asparagaceae.

Cacti have an evolutionary edge. They take take advantage of the lightest rainfall by having roots close to the soil surface. Water is quickly collected by the roots and stored in thick, expandable stems for the long summer drought. The fleshy stems of the barrel cactus are pleated like an accordion and shrink as moisture is used up. These pleats also channel water to the base of the plant during rain showers.

When water is no longer available in the summer Cacti still photosynthesize because they have fixed spines instead of leaves. The green stems produce the plant's food, but lose less water than leaves because of sunken pores and a waxy coating on the surface of the stem. The pores close during the heat of the day and open at night to release a small amount of moisture.

Cacti pay a price for these water-saving adaptations -- slow growth. Growth may be as little as 1/4 inch per year in the barrel cactus, and most young sprouts never reach maturity. Many cactus species are pollinated by bats.

In botany succulents sometimes known as fat plants, are plants having some parts that are more than normally thickened and fleshy, usually to retain water in arid climates or soil conditions.



Chronological and Commercial History

The history of cacti is often illustrated by the uses to which the plant is put.

The Prickly Pear was introduced to Europeans by Christopher Columbus in the mid 15th century. Prickly Pear, Opuntia ficus-indica originated in the western hemisphere but can now be found all along the Mediterranean coast.

Early on Prickly Pear were used on ships to help prevent scurvy, a common affliction among sailors. Mexican natives have been happily munching Prickly Pears as food for thousands of years and also made an alcoholic drink from it, known as colonche.

In Australia, ranchers planted Prickly Pear as cattle fodder and the plant did so well it overran an area the size of Connecticut.

Opuntias (prickly pears) were used for a variety of purposes by the Aztecs who symbolically linked the ripe, red fruits of the opuntia to human hearts; just as the fruit quenches thirst, so offering human hearts to the sun god (08) ensured the sun would keep moving.

Prickly Pear, Opuntia ficus-indica
Prickly Pear

Native Americans used cacti and other succulents to make many things. They made the fruits and cooked flesh of many cacti a foundation of their diet. The fibers of the Agave plant were used to make clothes, mats, bags, baskets, sandals, rope, twine, bracelets, musical instruments, saddle pads, blankets, and even paper.

In the 17th century, interest in cacti grew dramatically. Cactus got its name from Linnaeus . His first choice for the prickly plant was the Greek word 'kaktos', meaning thistle. The English translation of that word is cactus. There are over 2,500 species of cacti recognized today.

Peyote, Lophophora Williamsii

The Peyote cactus is used as a sacred and a recreational drug due to its hallucinogenic properties. Present day studies and records show that Peyote has been collected and used by the indigenous people of North America ever since the years 3780-3660 BC.

Persecution of Peyote began soon after the Spanish invaders conquered the indigenous peoples. The European ecclesiastics were very intolerant of any belief but their own and tried to crush native beliefs. To the invaders, Peyote was associated with the bloody Aztec sacrificial rites and condemned as " Riaz diabolica" (the Devils root).

The Peyote ritual was driven underground, to be silently preserved in the Chihuahuan desert. No anthropologists ever bothered to investigate or observe a Peyote ritual until well into the 1960's.

When the hysteria of witchcraft peaked in Europe, it was not long before it spilled over into the conquered territories. The Holy Office of the Inquisition imposed the first drug law in the new world. Peyote was formally denounced as an act of superstition on June, 29th 1620 and also as a source of divining, and foretelling future events which was equated with witchcraft.

During the latter part of the 1800's, at the close of the Indian wars, Indians brought back knowledge of Peyote from raids on Mexico. As a part of the "ghost dance". Peyote spread quickly among the Indian tribes of America after 1880. Indian prophets like Quanah Parker added Christianity to traditional beliefs and this forms the basis of the Peyote ritual practiced today.

Blue Agave, Agave tequilana
Blue Agave

Tequila was first produced in the 16th century near the location of the city of Tequila. The Aztec people had previously made a fermented beverage from the Blue Agave long before the Spanish arrived in 1521. The tequila Agave, native to Jalisco, Mexico favors altitudes of more than 5,000 ft. and grows in rich and sandy soils. Blue agave plants grow into large succulents, with spiky fleshy leaves. This stalk is cut off from commercial plants so the plant will put more energy into the heart <Agave Cultivation>

Some 80 years later, around 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, began mass-producing tequila at the first factory in the territory of modern-day Jalisco. By 1608, the colonial governor of Nueva Galicia had begun to tax his products. .

Pulque is made from another succulent the Maguey.