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Where The Cacti Grow
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Geographic Distribution & Habitats of the Cactus Family



Introduction
The natural distribution of cactus species occurs exclusively in the New World with a single exception. This range includes North and South America, Central America, and the adjacent Islands such as the Caribbean and Galapagos islands. Rhipsalis baccifera, an epiphytic species is the sole exception that can be found in Madagascar, Tropical Africa, Seychelles, Mauritius, Reunion, and Sri Lanka as well as Tropical America.

Note: To view cacti by location, use the CactiGuide.com Geographic Distribution Search.

Latitude
cactus habitat range Within the Americas, some species of cacti are found at latitudes that many find surprising. To the North, cacti are found across southern Canada from Ontario to the East to British Columbia in the West. In the drier, milder western range, cacti can be found further north than in the east. Only a half-dozen or so hardy species are able to survive this climate and those that do are low-growing, fairly inconspicuous plants. To the extreme Southern tip of South America, one also finds the low-growing Maiheniopsis darwinii, Maihuenia patagonica, and Pterocactus australis.

The larger, barrel-shaped, columnar, and Tree-like plants that are the stereotypical representatives of the family are mostly confined with in the tropics, extending somewhat north of the Tropic of Cancer into the Southwestern United States and pushing south of the Tropic of Capricorn into Northern Argentina.

Altitude
Cactus plants are found at sea-level growing down along the coast of both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans as well as low-altitude inland areas such as Death Valley California. In North America, cactus can be found growing up to at least 11,000 feet (3350 meters) in the mountains of California; particularly the White Mountains, and possibly even higher in some areas of the Sierra Nevada range. In South America on the Western edge of the Andes mountains, cacti grow even higher at 15,000 feet (4500 meters) elevation. As would be expected, the high altitude plants are also low growing plants similar to those at the far northern and far southern latitudes. Additionally, high-altitude plants are often particularly spiny or wooly to help shield from the high UV due to the thinner atmosphere. Examples of this are Opuntia polyacantha var. erinacea and Austrocylindropuntia floccosa.

cactus high altitude cactus sea level
Left: Opuntia at 11,000ft, White Moutains, CA
Right: Bergerocactus at Sea Level, Baja California, Mexico

Climate
While "Desert" is the always the first thing that comes to mind when someone thinks of cactus habitat, this term is far too broad and too limiting in comparison to the actual localities where cacti occur. To start with, the Sonora Desert of Arizona and Northern Mexico is extremely lush in comparison to the Mojave desert to the west. In the Sonoran, desert many species of cacti can be found from the giant Saguaro to small Mammillaria species along with Ferocatus, and many Opuntiads all within only a few feet of each other and in association with other desert plants like Palo Verde. The density and overall larger size of plants here is due in most part to summer monsoons which bring rain up from the Gulf of Mexico in addition to the winter rains. Meanwhile the Mojave desert in California experiences only winter rain while it is hot and dry the rest of the year. As a result, cactus plants are smaller and more spread out as they compete for the limited moisture.

cactus sonoran desert cactus mojave desert
Left: The Sonoran Desert grows large cactus due to summer rains
Right: The Mojave Desert is stark by comparisson.

Other deserts in North America include the Great Basin, and Chihuahuan. Both of these have more limited moisture than the Sonoran, but also have colder temperatures due to elevation and weather patterns. This again limits the dispersion and sustainable size of the cactus that live within each area. All of the deserts of North America are "mild" in comparison to the deserts of Western South America. The Atacama desert in Chile is the driest place on earth. Here it may only rain once in 10 years. In some areas, there has been no rainfall at all in recorded history. Yet, cacti survive here due to a dense and heavy fog that condenses on plants and rocks and drips down into the soil. Plants are forced to give each other a wide berth because of the low moisture, but surprisingly they can become relatively large plants. Larger than any found in the wetter, but cooler deserts such as the Great Basin Desert.

cactus atacama desert cactus mojave desert
Left: Copiapoa in the harsh Atacama Desert
Right: Eulychnia in Peru and life-giving fog in the background.

As stated above, "desert" is a term too limiting for cactus habitat. Cacti can be found also in the grassland regions of both continents. Here they often grow on rock outcroppings where soil is thin or areas where the soil is especially gravely causing other plants and grasses to be dwarfed or sparse. Cacti survive in these areas because of their succulent stems and ability to retain water. While the plains areas do receive plenty of rainfall, the rocky soils drain and dry out quickly. As a result, the more aggressive grasses cannot choke out the cactus.

cactus grassland minnesota cactus brazil
Left: Opuntia on granite outcropping in Minnesota
Right: Cereus growing among grass and shurbs in Brazil

The least likely seeming occurrence of cactus is within tropical rain-forests and jungles. Few people realize that cactus grow where it rains almost every day of the year. However, these species are very different from the spiny barrels we find in the desert. In the jungle, cacti are epiphytes, meaning they live hanging in trees. Here cacti take on a thin, long, drooping habit. They put out roots to cling to the tree and take in what ever nutrients they can get out of the crevices where rotting leaves may have accumulated. The most familiar example of an epiphytic cactus is the "Christmas Cactus". While the true Christmas cactus is a hybrid, the parents of this come from epiphytic jungle growing species.

cactus rain forest cactus brazil
Left: Hylocereus growing in a tree in Nicaragua
Right: Epiphytic Rhipsalis in Brazil

Conclusion
This overview touches on some of the general environments where cacti occur. Within each, there exists more specific micro-climates and conditions which host species uniquely suited for those conditions. Readers may find that the native range of cacti is more restricted than they previously thought in terms of world-wide distribution. On the other hand, the occurrence of cacti in very wet and/or very cold environments may also be a surprise to many.

-Daiv Freeman

Images by Daiv except for: Copiapoa -Vicent Bueno Ripoll, Eulychnia -Dr. Horacio Larrain Barros, Cereus -Gilberto Coster, Hylocereus -Leland Smith, Rhipsalis - Joel Lode.
More pictures of places with cacti:

Public Gardens
The Public Gardens page features pictures from several gardens with significant cacti collections and their contact information.

Parks with Cacti
This page contains pictures from National and State Parks where cacti grow and a brief description of each park.

Private Gardens
This page currently contains only pictures from my cactus garden, but will be renamed "Private Collections" as photos from other personal collections are added.
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