Is a Cactus a Leaf?
Easy explanation for non-botanist

Have you ever wondered how cacti make their food? Could they be called leaves? Let's find out!

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Kelly Adams

July 04, 2021

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A cactus is a type of succulent plant requiring well-drained soil to grow correctly. One of the reasons why cacti astonish me is due to their low maintenance and high drought tolerance. However, many succulent plants have leaves, and cacti have spines instead. 

Cacti do not produce leaves as they are void of the stem or stalk structure, except for some species. The surface of most cacti acts as a stem that takes sunlight, air, and water and turns it into nutrients, a process called photosynthesis. However, the spines of cacti used to be leaves before evolving during a period.

Leaves help lose excess water and also use sunlight to create nutrients for the plant. So we can only wonder how a cactus does it, as apparently, we don’t see any leaves or leaf stalks coming out of it. And nor does a cactus look like a stem or stalk itself.

So is a cactus itself a leaf? Let’s find out in the easiest way possible!

What is the definition of a leaf?

Let’s understand a leaf first!

A closeup of octillo cactus with leaves

A leaf is a green blade that is attached to a stem or a stalk. It is responsible for photosynthesis, a process by which plants use sunlight to produce nutrients for sustainable and proper growth.

You must also understand that a leaf is permanently attached to a stem or, in other words, a stalk. While a cactus stem itself is photosynthetic, it doesn’t produce stalks for leaves to sprout out.

Therefore, a cactus is neither a leaf itself nor does it have leaves. 

How does a cactus make its nutrients?

If a cactus is not a leaf and doesn’t have leaves, how does it make food?

Plants use their leaves for photosynthesis, a process by which they use sunlight to create their nutrients. A cactus stores water to make its nutrients.

The leaves of a plant are responsible for taking in sunlight and producing nutrients for the plant, a process known as photosynthesis. So if a cactus itself is not a leaf and doesn’t have leaves, how does it stay alive?

Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves?

The native environmental tendencies of cacti have had a major impact!

The majority of cacti species have grown and developed in a hot and dry environment, causing no leaf growth.

The climate is responsible for a cactus having no leaves. For any plant, leaves make ample use of sunlight, water, and air combined to produce nutrients. A cactus has evolved rather differently, requiring minimal water needs which leaves are usually not good at maintaining, compared to spines that help get rid of excess water very well.

The spines allow the cactus to thrive in an extremely arid environment. 

Thorns vs Spines: What does a cactus have and are they ‘leaves’?

All cacti have spines and not thorns! Let’s see the difference.

Many cacti with spines

A cactus has spines instead of thorns. Spines are modified leaves, whereas thorns are stems.

For a cactus, a spine is actually a leaf. You can think of it as a different version of a leaf, a modified form of it. Whereas a thorn is not a modified leaf, rather just tiny stems poking out. 

A cactus doesn’t have stems, it only has spines. And these spines used to be leaves at one point in time. 

Did a cactus have leaves before evolving?

You’ll be surprised to know that a cactus used to have full-fledged leaves!

Cacti species used to have leaves that turned into spines during evolution, to adjust better in a changing hot and arid climate.

A cactus used to have leaves once upon a time. But hot environmental factors made the cactus evolve in a manner that its leaves turned into spines, which is why we call spines the modified version of leaves. 

These spines used to be fuller, actual leaves that would lose excess water through its pores for the cactus to grow well. 

To learn more about the evolution of cactus leaves in detail, have a look at this fantastic resource from SBS U-texas education.

Did you know?

**Not all cacti have the same number of spines!**

Cacti growing in sub-tropical climates and partial shade will produce lesser spines.

Does the stem (the cactus itself) perform photosynthesis?

So can a cactus perform photosynthesis, a process that is done by leaves?

The surface of the cactus and the lush green-colored fleshy stems (branches) help perform photosynthesis.

Yes, the stem itself performs photosynthesis, turning sunlight, air, and water into nutrients. But this process alone doesn’t make the cactus body a leaf since it has spines that used to be leaves long before evolving. 

And a leaf can’t itself have leaves, could it?

How does a cactus use its spines instead of leaves?

You won’t believe how cacti make use of their spines!

The spines of a cactus protect it in a scorching climate and also help conserve water.

To adjust itself to the harsh and scorching hot climate, a cactus will produce spines. The spines shield the cactus from the intense heat and protect tiny desert animals from potential predators.

This is the main reason why cacti growing in deserts have no problem adjusting to the environment if the weather gets hotter.

In regular plants, water conservation is done by leaves through small holes (known as stomata) on the surface by losing excess water, known as transpiration. The spines of a cactus help carry out the same process and better than leaves for a cactus. 

Does any cactus species have leaves?

Have you ever seen a cactus species with leaves?

A flowering pereskia cactus

Most cacti are characterized by their spines. However, the pereskiopsis cacti species have typical green leaves. Other cacti that have leaves are the holiday cacti, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter cacti.

Not only do the pereskiopsis species have leaves, but they require more water too. However, unlike other cacti species, they can even tolerate a sufficient amount of water and a regular potting soil mix.

Since the pereskiopsis cacti have leaves, we can conclude that a cactus is not a leaf itself!

So is a cactus a leaf?

Before evolving and adapting to the hotter climatic changes of the world, a cactus had leaves. This clarifies that a cactus would have stalks at one point for its leaves, which it doesn’t have anymore. Hence a cactus was never a leaf, and it still isn’t one.

Another proof of a cactus being a plant is the pereskiopsis species, which has fleshy green leaves. If some cacti do have leaves, then they are plants themselves.

Eager to know how the oldest cacti in the world lived and thrived? You won’t believe the fantastic world records these cacti have.

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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