Cactus used by Humans

Written by Mikhail Gladshteyn


Humans have had a long history utilizing the cacti. It can be used for several purposes. In the dry parts of North America, particularly the southern US and Northern Mexico, it is invaluable as a food crop. Often it is the only article of food for about 2 months of the year (Benson 1982). One of the main food crops is the Opuntia cactus, better known as the prickly pear. These cacti are utilized in several ways. The fruits can be opened and eaten, revealing a type of watermelon/beet flavor (personal observation), or the entire stem can be sliced into strips and cooked up, similar to cooking green beans (Benson 1982).

In addition to utilizing Prickly Pear Cacti for food, it is often utilized as a food for livestock or other ranging animals. This is because the cacti provide a good deal of water and nutrients (Benson 1982). In fact, cacti were once thought to have great commercial potential as an easily grown, food for cattle. Even a spineless variety was engineered to allow for easier consumption of the cacti (Benson 1982).

A third popular use of cacti is as an emergency source of water. The barrel cacti in the genus Ferocactus and Echinocactus have been used to save stranded desert voyagers by providing a useful source of water. One instance documents a stranded Marine pilot during a training exercise who was saved by drinking the water. Another instance is documented from a stranded Geologist on a ledge in the Grand Canyon (Benson 1982).
Besides, nutritional sources for humans and animals, cacti have been used for insight into the spiritual realm of the gods. In the southern
Rocky Mountains, Indians used to beat themselves with stems of chollas as part of a right of passage ceremony for young warriors (Benson 1982). This action, of course, involves the cacti entirely because of its physical appearance. Other uses are through the actual ingestion of cacti because these plants contain alkaloids that have psychoactive compounds. One example of this is the widespread use of peyote (Lophophora williamsii). This plant has been used in Mexico and emphasizes agriculture, hunting, curing and divination. Here the participants undergo pilgrimages to sights where they grow and follow this with singing, dancing and praying. In the plains of the US, the plant is incorporated into the Christian Native American Church. Some even believe Christ gave them this plant to better allow them to see God (Anderson 1996). Yet L. williamsii is not the only hallucinogenic cacti. There are many more.