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Justasanimalsaroundtheworldhaveevolvedtobettersurviveintheirenvironments,

botanicallifeeverywherehasalsobeenforcedtogrowandadapttotheirhabitats.Every
plantfromthesmalleststrainofseaweedtothetallestredwoodistheresultofbillionsof
yearsofcompetitionforoptimalgrowthconditions.Inmanyplaceswithharshconditionsor
wherethereisaverylargepopulationofplantscompetingforlimitedresources,someplants
havedevelopedamazingwaysofsurviving.Somearepoisonoustopreventanimalsfromkilling
andeatingthem,whileothershavebecomecarnivorous,eatinganddigestinginsectstomake
upforalackofnitrogenthatmostplantswouldabsorbthroughsoil.Thegreatestexampleof
plantadaptation,however,isfoundinauniquesucculent,morecommonlyknownasthecactus.
Themajorityofcactiaremadeupoffoursimpleparts:thestem,theneedles,the
flowers,and,likeallplants,therootsystem.Thestemofacactusactsastheplant'swater
storagesystem.Oncewaterisdrawninthroughtheroots,itcanbestoredinthestemforlong
periodsoftime,allowingthecactustolivethroughthelongperiodsofdroughtandintenseheat
forwhichdesertsaresowellknown.Whilemostplantsabsorbsunlightandphotosynthesize
throughtheirleavesthroughouttheday,formostsucculents,thesevitalprocessesarealso
performedbythebulkystem.Allplantshavestomata,orpores,onthemthatallowthemto
breatheincarbondioxidenecessaryforphotosynthesis.Whentheseporesopentoletinthe
gas,watervaporescapes.Thisisfineformostplants,butinadeserthabitat,thisprecious
waterevaporatesrapidly.Topreventthis,cactiopentheirstomataatnight,whenitis
significantlycolderandmuchlesslikelytoevaporate.Theirproblemthenisthat,asthecarbon
dioxidecannotbeturnedintosugarinthedark,ithastobestoredintheformoforganicacids.
Thecellsapofthesucculentthusbecomesmoreandmoreacidicasitsnightstorageacid
batteriesbecomefullycharged(Bellamy).Whenthesunrises,theplantonceagainclosesits
poresandbeginstakinginsunlight,whichallowsittocompletetheprocessofphotosynthesisby
turningthestoredacidsintoglucose,orsugar.Thisuniquesucculenttraitiscalledcrassulacean
acidmetabolismandissomethingmostpeoplewouldnotexpectfromamostlybranchlessplant
coveredinspikes.
Despitehavingfewotherplantsprovidingcompetition,succulentshavehadtoovercome
someoftheharshestlivingconditionsontheplanet.Extremelyhightemperaturesduringtheday
andeveningtemperaturesthatoftendipbelowfreezingareonlythebeginningofproblemsfor
desertplantlife.Scarcerainfallcoupledwithverydryairmakeitdifficultforplantstoobtainwater
neededforphotosynthesisandcreatecompetitionbetweenanimalsandplants.Desertdwelling
animalsalsohaveproblemsobtainingwater,butunlikeplants,whicharerootedinoneplaceand
areverylimitedinthewaysofdefense,animalsarefreetoeatwhateverplantlifetheycanto
acquirewaterorsimplymovetoanareawhereitiseasiertoobtainwaterandnutrients.The
competitionprovidedbydesertanimalsattemptingtoacquirewaterfromplantshasledtothe
cactussmostobviousanddistinctiveevolution:itshard,sharpspinesorneedles.
Needlesarearguablythemostimportantpartofallcactiandarewithoutadoubtthe
mostobvioussignthataplantisinfactasucculent.Thereasonneedlesaresovitaltocactus
survivalisbecausetheyprotecttheplant'sstem,wherephotosynthesisisperformedandwater
isstored.Withoutthisprotection,cactiwouldstillbesuitedfordesertlivingbecauseoftheir
uniquemethodsofsurvivingtheextremetemperatures,buttheywouldalsobeanincredibly
popularsourceoffoodandwaterfordesertanimals.Whilesomeanimalshaveevolvedtowork
aroundthesehard,sharpprotectorsandcrackintothejuicyinnardsoftheplant,thesespines
havebeenkeepingcactialiveforthousandsofyears:Spineshavebeenknowntopersist
unchangedonthetrunkofgiantSuaharosseveralcenturiesold(Hylander).Itisawidelyknown
factthatthemostwellarmoredcactigrowinthehottestareas.Intheseareas,theheavylattice
ofneedlescanhelptoblocksomeofthesun'srays,keepingthecactusfromoverheatingand
thewaterinsidefromevaporatingevenwiththestem'stightlyclosedpores.
Whiletheneedlesofsucculentsoftenmaketheplantslookhazardous,inhospitable,and
sometimesjustplainugly,whentheyflowerinthespring,theyaresomeofthemostbeautiful
plantsontheplanet.Manycactifloweronlyatnight,closingupduringthedaybecausethe
flowersthemselvesareoftenverysensitivetotherelentlesslybrightraysofthesun.Someof
thesebeautiesaresodelicatethattheyonlybloomforasingledayorevenmerehoursin
somecases.Theflowerscomeinavarietyofdifferentshapes,sizes,andcolors,althoughthe
nightbloomingfloraisoftenmostlywhite,makingthemeasytoseeinthedark:
Someoftheblossomsaresixinchesindiameterandtwicethatinlength
manyarebroadlycupshaped,othersfunnelshapedmosthavenumerous
sepalsgradingincolorintothebrilliantlyscarlet,purple,yellow,orsnowy
whitepetals.Inside,isagoldentangleofstamensthreethousandofthem
intheSuaharoflower(Hylander).
AmericansandMexicansshouldbeespeciallyproudofthisstunninglygorgeousplant,sincethe
southwesternUnitedStatesandMexicoarewherethesucculentfamilyoriginatedbeforeit
quicklyspreadasfarnorthasAlbertaandallthewaysouthtotheStraitsofMagellan.Allcacti
foundoutsidetheAmericancontinentseveninAustraliawheretheyseemanaturalpartofthe
environmentwereatsomepointintroducedtothelandfromtheCentralAmericanregion.The
onlyknownexceptiontothisissomespeciesoftheMistletoeCactus,whicharenownativeto
SouthAfrica,Madagascar,andCeylon,broughtasseedstothosecountriesfromMexicoand
SouthAmericabyoceanflyingbirds(Hylander).ManyofthesucculentsthatnowgrowinAsia
werechosenspecificallyfortheirradiance.
Therearemanydifferentspecieswithinthesucculentfamilythatarethespecimensof
ethnobotanicalresearchbecauseoftheirlonghistoryofuseamongthepeoplesnativetothe
CentralAmericanregion.ManyofthecactiintheTrichocereusgenus,suchastheTrichocereus
Pachanoi,theTrichocereusPeruvianus,andtheTrichocereusTerscheckii,morecommonly
knownastheSanPedroCactus,PeruvianTorchCactus,andCardonGrandeCactus
respectively,havebeeningestedinritualceremoniesforthousandsofyearsintheAmericasfor
achemicaltheyproducecalledmescaline.Mescalineisapsychedelicwhichisalsofound
stronglyintheLophophoraWilliamsii,orPeyoteCactus.ItisdescribedbyRichardEvans
Schultesascausing:
aperiodofcontentmentandoversensitivity,andaperiodofnervouscalm
andmuscularsluggishness,oftenaccompaniedbyhypocerebrality,colored
visualhallucinations,andabnormalsynesthesiae.Alterationsintactile
sensation,veryslightmuscularincoordination,disturbancesinspaceand
timeperception,andauditoryhallucinationsmayaccompany(Schultes).
Othercacti,suchastheAgaveTequilanaAzulorBlueAgave,aregrownandcultivated
specificallyfordistillingwithalcoholforauniquetaste.TheBlueAgaveplanthasbeenusedfor
aroundfivecenturies,andisstillthepreferredchoicetoday,astheplantfromwhichtequilais
distilled.
Thesucculentfamilyis,withoutadoubt,oneoftheplantworld'smostevolvedspecies.
Theirmanyuniquetraitsmakethemperfectforsurvivalinthecruel,inhospitabledesert
environment.Needlesstosay,mostotherplantswouldnotbeabletolivewiththehighdaytime
temperatures,lownighttimetemperatures,intensesunlight,andanythinggoesattitudeofthe
desert'snaturalanimallife.Notonlyarecactitheprimeexampleoftheplantworld'sabilityto
overcomeallodds,buttheyarealsotheprideofbothNorthandSouthAmerica,havingenjoyed
alongandrichheritageintheNewWorld.Cactihaverecentlybeguntosinktheirrootsintothe
othercontinents,bothliterallyandfiguratively.ManyspeciesarevaluedinEuropeandAsiafor
theirfiercebeauty,whileothersseemcompletelynaturalonthecontinentofAustralia.
Succulentsareaproudfamilyofplantthatwillcontinuetogrow,flourish,andberespectedby
humanswherevertheyfindthemselvesonEarthformillenniatocome.
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