Uses Of Cactus In Early History

Uses Of Cactus In Early History

Every plant has an important role in our ecosystem, so what could the cactus be useful for? Aside from giving camels a good source of hydration, what other uses of cactus in early history benefit us today?

Cacti actually have a huge number of benefits, including anything related to medicinal use and healing abilities, aesthetic purposes, a source of edible food, and more.

In this article, we’ll break down exactly how cacti became useful to humans and how they have shaped the habits of humans so far.

Want to learn more about cactus 101:

When Did Humans Start Using Cacti?

For the past decade, there has been a substantial amount of back-and-forth between archaeologists about the first appearance of the use of cacti in human history. There was one finding in Chile which showed that cacti were of use over 15,000 years ago and onwards.

When Did Humans Start Using Cacti

Even earlier, experts found expressions of cacti, their healing benefits, and details of preparation (for medicine and ointments) on scripts from the 1500s in Mexico.

There were also waste dumps with ancient cacti remains, suggesting they might have been in use for centuries. In Brazil, cave paintings of cacti were discovered.

Cultivation of Cacti

Although historians were unable to pinpoint exactly when cacti farming was initiated, the earliest evidence leads us to the indigenous people of modern-day Mexico, also known as the Aztecs.

The Aztecs were known for their horticulture of cultivating prickly pears. They related the fruit to their own branch of holistic healing.

For instance, because of the bright red color of prickly pears and their shape, the Aztecs believed they were good for heart health. They even linked the fruit to their religious beliefs, holding the conviction that their healthy hearts were an offering to their sun god, who kept the sun moving in exchange.

Gradual Expansion of Cacti Use

In the 15th century, when the Europeans first arrived in the West Indies, they discovered a plethora of cactus variations, the most common being the Melocactus.

Gradually, different genera of cacti, which ranged from being for solely decorative purposes to fruit-bearing and edible, began to arrive in Europe and outwards.

Were Cacti Eaten as Food?

Aside from fruiting cactus genera, such as prickly pears, vine cacti, and apple cacti, there are also other cacti variations that have been consumed as food through many cultures.

Were Cacti Eaten as Food

Indian Fig

The Indian fig, for example, originated in central Mexico and spread in use through other cultures within southern North America. This cactus is prepared in a way in which both the fruit and pads can be eaten. 

At the time of the arrival of Spanish settlers in the Caribbean, the Indian fig was already being eaten as a common dish.

Soon after the European settlers took over, cacti as food began to make a prominent recurrence throughout the Mediterranean and other areas.

Other than these countries and the Americas, the Indian fig is also consumed in numerous North African countries, such as Algeria, under other names.

Cacti as Food Around the World

Pitaya, better known as the dragon fruit, is actually a very commonly consumed cacti fruit throughout Asia. The Saguaro is a cactus that has been consumed by indigenous Mexicans and similar communities within southwestern America for decades.

Although it does not produce fruit, the cactus itself is prepared by boiling and drying to produce edible syrup, which can also be made into an alcoholic drink.

Prickly pears are not only edible themselves, but their pads and the rest of the cactus are eaten in parts of South America and Europe. For instance, in Bolivia, prickly pear pads are consumed as an alternative to potatoes.

Medicinal Effects of Cacti

Like many plants, cacti have also been linked to mind-altering effects. Researchers have found an astounding number of cacti genera that carry psychoactive agents, which can cause similar effects to those of recreational drugs.

Medicinal Effects of Cacti

For example, in indigenous America, peyote and the San Pedro cactus were both important for their abilities to change mood and perception. Both of these cacti were later found to carry mescaline, which is a psychedelic also found in LSD.

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii)

The peyote cactus is native to southern Texas as well as northern Mexico. Most of the cactus is above ground, while a big portion of its stem is underground. The area of the cactus where sunlight hits is where the psychedelic mescaline is most concentrated.

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii)

To reap the medicinal benefits of the peyote, a thin outer layer of the tops of the cactus is carefully cut. Then the collected layer is processed and used as a drug. The plant itself does not rot or wither but regrows the lost layer.

Historians have discovered that peyote has been present for medicinal purposes for centuries, presumably over 5,500 years. This hypothesis was formed after finding peyote remains in archaeological sites in Texas.

Due to its psychedelic properties, peyote was used for religious purposes, such as by the Roman Catholic to “Visit The Spirit World.” However, its use was soon barred by churches and other legal authorities.

San Pedro Cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi)

Unlike peyote, the San Pedro cactus is more shrub-like. Its archaeological evidence dates back earlier than peyote, with roughly 2,300 years of presumed history.

San Pedro Cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi)

Researchers discovered this cactus through the carvings in caves and stone and its illustrations on ceramic pottery.

Since this cactus also has psychedelic effects, it was named after the Christian figure Saint Peter, who was believed to “Hold The Keys To Heaven.”

Thus, the name “San Pedro” was given to the cactus as many believed its properties could show people heaven on earth.

Furthermore, these cacti are also used for holistic healing, despite their drug-like effects. Many cultures around the world have combined the San Pedro cactus with other addictive and psychoactive substances like tobacco to produce “Spiritually Cleansing” medicine.

Cacti as Decoration (Ornament)

After being introduced to most of the New World, there was a surge in the multipurpose use of cacti in the 1500s. By the time the 1800s rolled in, cacti were widely used for ornamental purposes.

Cacti as Decoration (Ornament)

The wealthy collected many variations of cacti and bid high prices to get rare succulents.

Aside from growing and farming different types of cacti, suppliers also made sure to have their workers collect cacti from the wild and take them back for propagation. By the late 1800s, orchids outshined the popularity of cacti, but the cultivation of cacti did not vanish completely.

Growing Cacti

As cacti are very particular plants, they have to be grown in greenhouses with the atmospheric features tuned to be optimal for cacti growth. In other places, such as in Europe and North America, all that needs to be done is to grow the cacti directly in the ground or put them in pots.

Since cacti can withstand dry conditions and lack of moisture, they make excellent houseplants. They are used throughout the year with cacti in flower pots placed in gardens and patios in the summer and kept through the winter (but covered).

Water Preservation

Cacti are able to store water within their transpiration system for days on end. For this reason, they are believed to be drought-resistant by farmers and gardeners.

Gardeners have also recommended taking cacti as houseplants to busy workers and amateur gardeners who do not have time or the talent to garden.

Miscellaneous Uses of Cacti

Apart from the common uses of cacti we have listed above, there are also a number of other uses of cacti. These are all the miscellaneous uses of cacti in summary –

  • Fruiting cactus provide food for humans, as well as some non-fruiting variations.
  • Used as feed for animals (only when the spines of the cactus are burnt off).
  • Used in the production of herbal medicine due to psychoactive effects.
  • Helps in producing cochineal, which was widely used in the cosmetics industry for making reddish tint.
  • Used as construction materials, such as cactus fences which were used as barricades around buildings.
  • Used to herd together animals such as sheep, so they don’t wander off.
  • Used for building construction and furniture carpentry.
  • Thin-spined cacti were used as filling for pillows and other woven products.


To sum up, the uses of cactus in early history were gradual but widespread. Cacti have always been used for multiple purposes, which touched upon many aspects of human life, ranging from decoration to physical healing.

Therefore, the cactus is a very important plant.



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