I’m taking a break today from the series we’ve been writing on the noxious weeds of Las Vegas. Instead, I’m going to share with you some fascinating insight on how one of my favorite species of native plants survives the harsh climate that my hometown of Las Vegas has. Cacti! I’ve written about them before, so now we’re going to look at the different factors of the anatomy of cacti that helps them thrive in the desert.

FUN FACT: a word I’ll be using often here is succulents. Succulents are specify desert dwelling plants with fleshy leaves. And that’s exactly what a cactus is! The thick leaves that are so different from any other plants out there are what make cacti unique and part of this succulent grouping.

So how do cacti survive in the desert? Let’s start with the root system. Many plants build a deep roost system to get to the dirt that holds moisture the best and is cool in temperature. But, in the desert, rain water begins to evaporate shortly after touching down on the ground.
Because of this, succulents like our beloved cacti have very shallow root systems. They instead branch out horizontally, giving the plant the best chance to capture as much moisture as possible every time it rains. It’s such an important factor of cacti survival.

Now that the cacti has collected enough moisture from the most recent rainfall, how does it make sure it doesn’t get baked away? To understand how succulents pull this off, you have to understand what stomates are. They’re little pores on the leaves of plants that open up so plants can absorb gases in the air for photosynthesis.
The unfortunate part of this process is that the stomates release moisture into the air at the same time as absorbing in gases. To minimize the damage, succulents like cacti have fewer stomates per inch. They also only open their stomates during the night when the heat is less intense and will evaporate less moisture.

We’ve look so far at how cacti collect water and how they keep it from escaping during the scorching hot day. Now here’s one more factor to consider. Imagine you’re a coyote out in the desert and you’re thirsty. It hasn’t rained in a few days and there are no sources of water around. Your best option would be eating a succulent to enjoy the liquid stored within.
To protect themselves against the thirsty wildlife, succulents have a defensive mechanism of some sort. The most common for cacti is spikes on the leaves. If I were a coyote, getting a mouthful of spikes would discourage me for sure!

Isn’t it amazing how a few little details about a plant can give it the ability to survive in such an unforgiving ecosystem? The heat of Las Vegas’ deserts are brutal, but our cacti have what it takes. And I’m glad for that, because I absolutely love having them in my garden.
If you enjoyed this article, share it on Facebook or Twitter so your friends and family can learn all this cool information too. And comment below to tell us about your favorite type of cacti or succulent and what you think about their survival mechanisms.

How Cacti Survive the Las Vegas Deserts