Leafy Cacti?

Pereskia aculeata

Pereskia aculeata

At first glance, there is little about a Pereskia that would suggest a relation to what we know as cacti. Even a second, third, and forth glance probably wouldn't do much to persuade the casual observer that these plants have a place on cacti family tree. All preconceptions aside, Pereskia are in fact members of the family Cactaceae and quite interesting ones at that.

Most people readily recognize the leafless, spiny green stems of a cactus. Indeed, this would appear to be a unifying character of the family. Pereskia is proof that this is not the case. Though other cacti occasionally produce either tiny, vestigial leaves or stubby succulent leaves, Pereskia really break the mold by producing broad, flattened leaves with only a hint of succulence.

Pereskia spines are produced from areoles in typical cactus fashion.

Pereskia spines are produced from areoles in typical cactus fashion.

What's more, instead of clusters of Opuntia-like pads or large, columnar trunks, Pereskia are mainly shrubby plants with a handful of scrambling climbers mixed in. Similar to their more succulent cousins, the trunks of Pereskia are usually adorned with clusters of long spines for protection. Additionally, each species produces the large, showy, cup-like blooms we have come to expect from cacti.

They are certainly as odd as they are beautiful. As it stands right now, taxonomists recognize two clades of Pereskia - Clade A, which are native to a region comprising the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea (this group is currently listed under the name Leuenbergeria) and Clade B, which are native to regions just south of the Amazon Basin. This may seem superficial to most of us but the distinction between these groups has a lot to teach us about the evolution of what we know of as cacti. 

Pereskia grandifolia

Pereskia grandifolia

Genetically speaking, the genus Pereskia sorts out at the base of the cactus family tree. Pereskia are in fact sister to all other cacti. This is where the distinction between the two Pereskia clades gets interesting. Clade A appears to be the older of the two and all members of this group form bark early on in their development and their stems lack a feature present in all other cacti - stomata. Stomata are microscopic pours that allow the exchange of gases like CO2 and oxygen. Clabe B, on the other hand, delay bark formation until later in life and all of them produce stomata on their stems.

The reason this distinction is important is because all other cacti produce stomata on their stems as well. As such, their base at the bottom of the cactus tree not only shows us what the ancestral from of cactus must have looked like, it also paints a relatively detailed picture of the evolutionary trajectory of subsequent cacti lineages. It would appear that the ancestor of all cacti started out as leafy shrubs that lacked the ability to perform stem photosynthesis. Subsequent evolution saw a delay in bark formation, the presence of stomata on the stem, and the start of stem photosynthesis, which is a defining feature of all other cacti.

Pereskia aculeata

Pereskia aculeata

If you are as excited about Pereskia as I am, then you , my friend, are in luck. A handful of Pereskia species have found their way into the horticulture trade. With a little luck attention to detail, you too can share you home with one of these wonderful plants. Just be warned, they get tall and their spines, which are often hidden by the leaves, are a force to be reckoned with. Tread lightly with these wonderfully odd cacti. Celebrate their as the evolutionary wonders that they are!

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

 

 

Shady Spines

Tephrocactus articulatus

Tephrocactus articulatus

Fondling cacti with your bare hands is often ill-advised. These spiny plants are icons of plant defense mechanisms. Cactus spines are actually modified leaves/bud scales. They develop from a bundle of cells called "primordia" that are nearly indistinguishable from leaf primordia. Unlike leaves, however, cactus spines are not made up of living tissue. The genes for leaf development are shut off in these cells and instead, genes for wood fibers are ramped up, creating the stiff structures many of us have had to pry out of our skin.

It is easy to assume that spines are simply there for defense. For a lot species they certainly do the trick. However, for many other species, spines serve another important purpose - they provide shade. This is exemplified by the fact that cacti growing in rainforests and cloudy highlands often have reduced or no spines at all.

For cacti living in the sun-baked regions of the world, sunburn is a serious issue to contend with. Full sunlight can damage sensitive photosynthetic machinery and while intense UV rays wreak havoc on the genome. As such, any adaptation that can shelter these sensitive tissues to some degree is advantageous.

Cephalocereus senilis

Cephalocereus senilis

Spines also buffer the cactus from huge temperature swings. Think of fuzzy or papery spines as a sort of blanket covering the cactus. These spines create a boundary between air immediately surrounding the cactus and the cold nighttime air of these arid climates. This insulation can come in handy as desert temperatures can drop quite low when the sun goes down.

Another benefit spines have is to catch and direct water to the base of the plant. Rain is often scarce in these habitats so when it does occur, a cactus needs to be ready. Water collects on the spines and then runs down to the base. They also act as dew catchers, causing water vapor to condense on their surfaces. In this way, cacti are able to take advantage of every last drop available.

Though they certainly offer some protection, many of these shade spines are too thin and flexible to deter a hungry herbivore. That is where secondary compounds come into play. It is no wonder why some cacti are extremely toxic to herbivores. Whether they are for shade, protection, or water harvesting, cacti spines have managed to capture our imagination and knowing a bit more about their function makes these plants even more impressive.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]