How Does a Cactus Survive in the Desert?
6 Stunning Reasons Why Cacti Thrive!

Read ahead as we will be discussing all of the ways cacti have evolved to beat the odds and become the ultimate survivalists.

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Kelly Adams

April 25, 2021

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Deserts, unlike other biomes, need no introduction. They are sandy, dry, and, as we have learned from the movies, a terrible place to run out of gas when traveling cross country.

So the fact that cacti prosper in the desert contradicts almost everything we know about plants who famously rely on water and, in most cases, reasonable temperatures to survive.

Cacti have adapted themselves to be able to survive in arid climates. They have spines instead of leaves, usually have shallow root systems, and can store water within themselves. Apart from that, their stems can photosynthesize. All of these things help them grow where other plants simply can’t.

How do cacti survive in the Desert?

Over generations, cacti have developed a system that allows them to survive in harsh environments easily. They have shallow root systems, a great ability to store water, and stems that can photosynthesize. Moreover, they have spines that protect them from predators. These things help them thrive in deserts.

With their reputation of being hot and arid, the Desert is most likely the last place you would expect to find vegetation. Despite this, cacti have thrived and continue to thrive in deserts despite their unforgiving climates.

Whatever the case, cacti are beloved plants that can be extremely rewarding to grow. I remember how pleased I was to see my baby cacti grow into a beautiful adult. Here is an awesome cactus set that is perfect for beginners.

Picture of Cacti in the Desert.

Several adaptations help the cacti flourish where other plants would suffer.

Cacti Have Spines Instead of Leaves.

Cactus spines, also known as glochidia, are probably one of the most distinguishable features of cacti and serve many purposes.

Picture of Glochidia.

Provide Protection from Predators.

The spines make for excellent self-defense against hungry animals, for example, camels, desert tortoises, and peccaries, who, with few other options, may try to snack on cacti.

Fun Fact!

Camels have evolved to eat cacti despite their spines.

Check out the link below to read more!

Provide Protection from the Sun.

Due to the lack of moisture in the Desert, cacti rely on their water reserves to survive.

In addition to warding off predators, the thousands of spines that cover cacti also protect the plants from the scorching desert sun.

Picture of the Sun in the Desert.

By providing shade, they reduce the rate at which the water stored in the cactus evaporates.

Fun Fact!

Because the spines are white, they help the cacti to deflect the sunlight instead of absorbing it.

Assist with Water Collection.

Instead of having long, extensive roots that search the earth for moisture, cacti have shallow root systems that stay close to the surface, ready to collect rain and dew.

The cactus spines also have a part to play in this process; they catch the rain and dew, guiding it to the base of the plant where the roots wait to absorb the moisture.

The Spines Trap Air.

This is arguably the most impressive glochidia function.

Deserts are typically very windy and, due to the high temperatures and low humidity that they are known for, the wind tends to be very dry.

Cacti spines break up the airflow around the cacti, which helps slow the rate at which the water stored within them evaporates.

Fun Fact!

The spines also trap air which creates a shield of slightly moister air.

Cacti Stems Photosynthesize.

Photosynthesis is the process by which plants use sunlight to create food from carbon dioxide and water.

In most plants, the process of photosynthesis occurs in the leaves. However, as mentioned previously, cacti have spines instead of leaves.

So how do they photosynthesize?

Cacti use Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) photosynthesis.

Put simply, cacti absorb carbon dioxide at night, when the temperature has dropped, to reduce the amount of moisture lost through transpiration when the cacti open their stoma or pores.

Fun Fact!

Due to their extremely low humidity, deserts do not trap the heat from the sun and often get very cold at night.

Because photosynthesis requires sunlight, the absorbed carbon dioxide is then stored until the sun rises, and the process can be completed.

Shallow Root Systems.

As mentioned previously, instead of having far-reaching roots, cacti have shallow root systems that wait near the surface of the earth that allow the plant to absorb water quickly.

During rainy seasons, cacti will grow more roots to absorb as much water as possible.

However, during drier periods, the cactus will cut off those roots to conserve its water supply.

Cacti are Water Storing Experts.

Cacti, like other succulents, store water everywhere possible, including their roots.

Cacti Have Waxy Skin.

This waxy coating improves the cactus’ water retention by sealing in the stored moisture.

Picture of Cacti's Waxy Skin.

Cacti Hibernate.

Compared to other plants, cacti have relatively short growing periods. This is because plants need to use more water during their growth phases.

As such, cacti have periods of dormancy where they preserve water by halting their growth.


Cacti are resilient plants that have adapted themselves to survive in deserts. They have shallow root systems, fantastic water storage ability, and stems that can photosynthesize. Other than that, they can hibernate when needed and protect themselves with their spines.

So, there you have it. The cactus’ unique ability to survive in the Desert is not a fluke by any means; it is the result of an impressive history of adaptation.

If you’re new to all of this and wish to learn more about cacti, I recommend that you read this comprehensive guide that will tell you about different types of cacti.

How Many Types of Cactus Are There? The Best Ones You Can Get!

Cacti are brilliant plants that can thrive without using too much water. Read ahead to learn about the different types of cacti!

Kelly Adams Picture

By Kelly Adams

Easy Succulents Founder

My name is Kelly and I'm the the founder of Easy Succulents! I'm fascinated by this wonderful plants and I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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Kelly Adams Picture

Kelly Adams

Easy Succulents Founder

My name is Kelly and I'm the the founder of Easy Succulents! I'm fascinated by this wonderful plants and I want to share with the world everything I know about them!



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