Other Uses of Cacti

The indigenous people of the arid regions in the New World have been highly creative in devising uses from limited natural resources, especially in times of drought. Cacti are abundant in such areas, so it is not surprising that they have been— and continue to be—used by people inhabiting these regions.

Pachycereus marginatus cactus fence in Mexico

Candle Making. For making candles, tallow is mixed with the juice of Opuntia megacantha in Mexico (Meyer and McLaughlin 1981,109).

Drinking Water. Some believe that a cactus can be tapped to obtain a ready supply of fresh drinking water. Much has been written about cacti that can be "hailed as the saviors of desert travelers" (Benson 1982,237), but the supply is not always easy to get, nor does it necessarily taste good. Water is present in the parenchyma cells of the stem cortex, but the tissue must be beaten or chewed after one has cut into the center of the plant.

Native Americans have several methods for extracting water from barrel cacti. One of the most common is to push over the plant and burn off the spines. The stem is then cut open and the cortex pounded with a rock or sharp stick until the center is mashed and liquid collects in the cavity. Moisture can also be squeezed out of the pulp and into a container by hand (Felger and Moser 1985, 263-264).

Apparently, water from most species of Echi-nocactus and Ferocactus is at least refreshing though unpleasant and slimy to the taste. The same is reported for the saguaro, Carnegiea gigantea. There is no question that cacti do have an emergency supply of water that may, indeed, save one's life, but they certainly are not a readily available source. I remember trying to extract a bit of water from an Opuntia stem joint in the Galápagos Islands when we ran out of water in our canteens; I decided it was not worth the effort. Some people may become nauseated or develop diarrhea drinking the water from a cactus, according to Nobel (1994, 62), who also suggests that a much more drinkable water may be obtained by mashing the stem tissue, "condensing it on the walls of a container, and then allowing the condensed water to trickle into a collection vessel." See also Water Clarification.

Eating Utensils and Containers. The boots of Pachycereus pringlei and Carnegiea gigantea, callus structures formed within the stem where wood-

peckers have cut out their nests, are used by the Seri as containers. Barrel cacti are sometimes hollowed out by the Seri to make containers into which mashed fruits of the columnar cacti are placed to ferment into wine (Felger and Moser 1985,245,265). Stem joints of Opuntia ficus-in-dica have been used by Italian peasants as plates from which to eat their noon meal (Gait and Gait 1978,24).

Fences. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo observed that Opuntia was used around towns in the Caribbean in the early sixteenth century for fences or barricades (Howard and Touw 1981,233). Another European commented in 1697 that these barricades were "so strong, so stiff, so dense, and so furnished with large and small thorns, that it was impossible to find one single place where one could touch them without being cut____The opuntias served [as] both trench and stockade at this fort [Fort-de-France, Martinique], and formed its best defense" (Howard and Touw 1982,170).

Cactus fences are often seen in Mexico and several South American countries. One of the most commonly used cacti in Mexico is Pachyce-reus marginatus. They may also be grown using P. hollianus, Cylindropuntia, especially C. tunicata (Soulaire 1947, 50), Hylocereus triangularis, and Selenicereus hamatus. Cereus répandus "makes impenetrable hedges round plantations" in Curaçao (Morton 1967,189). Leuenberger (1986,48) comments that the most common use of Pereskia is for hedges in which the cuttings are taken during the dry season. He also remarks that the wood of Pereskia may be used for fence posts. I have observed fences grown from Eulychnia in Chile, also friendly fences of Austrocylindropuntia subulata atop adobe walls in upland Peru. Arenas and Scarpa (1998) report that Stetsonia coryne is also used for friendly cactus fences.

Fiber and Filling. In past years the woolly tri-chomes of barrel cacti such as Echinocactus platy-acanthus were harvested in Mexico as lana de biznaga, wool of the barrel cactus. It- was used as padding, in making cordage, or in weaving arti-

Eulychnia cactus fence in Chile

Stetsonia CoryneOstolaza Cactus

Friendly fence, atop roof, of Austrocylindropuntia sub-ulata, south of Huaraz, Ancash, Peru cles such as blankets and vests. People also used the material as part of the decoration for nativity scenes at Christmas (del Castillo and Trujillo 1991, 498). Wool from the lateral cephalia of Espostoa lanata is used as filling for pillows in Peru (Carlos Ostolaza, pers. comm.).

Firewood. The dried woody skeletons of cacti are an important source of firewood in many arid regions. Cereus repandus is used both for firewood and in making torches (Morton 1967,190). Some areas of coastal Chile have been largely denuded of Echinopsis and Eulychnia because of the need for firewood at sulfur-processing plants for the copper industry. Dead stems of Echinopsis ataca-mensis are used for firewood in the treeless areas along the Argentine-Bolivian border (Barthlott 1979, 7). The Seri use cactus wood for fires but also make drills for starting fires from dry ribs of Carnegiea gigantea (Felger and Moser 1985,247).

Fishing Items. Fishhooks were made from the spines of Neoraimondia arequipensis in ancient Peru; they are still made by Mexicans from the spines of Mammillaria bocasana (Barthlott 1979, 7). The Pima have made fishhooks from the central spines of Ferocactus wislizeni (Curtin 1949, 56). Spines have also been used as fishhooks, from Opuntia fragilis and O. polyacantha by the Okan-agan-Colville, and from Echinocactuspolycephalus by the Mahuna (Moerman 1998,206,366,368).

Stenocereus gummosus contains several toxic triterpenes. Indigenous people in northern Mexico crush the stems of the plant and throw the pieces into the water, stupefying the fish, which are then scooped out of the water by hand (Barthlott 1979,8).

The Seri long ago learned that the "white meat" or cortex of the stems of Echinocereus will attract fish when thrown into the sea. The fish are speared when they come to feed on the cactus tissue (Felger and Moser 1985,261).

Furniture and Building Material. The large woody parts of Cereus repandus are used in Curaçao for making chairs, chests, and small decorative tables (Morton 1967, 190). Wood for furniture making is also obtained from Opuntia coche-nillifera (Soulaire 1947,51). Extensive use is made of the wood of the cardon, Echinopsis atacamen-sis, in northwestern Argentina. For example, the pews, balcony, lectern, and altar of the seventeenth century church in Purmamarca are constructed from this wood. Tables and chairs made from cardon wood are also found in restaurants in Humahuaca. See also Shelter and Shade.

Gums and Mucilages. Gum and mucilage from Ariocarpus and Opuntia are used in mending broken pottery and as glue for fastening various items (Moerman 1998, 368). A chewing gum is obtained from Cylindropuntia imbricata (Meyer and McLaughlin 1981,109). The Seri make a type of caulking from the cortex of Stenocereus thurberi for making and repairing their boats (Felger and Moser 1985,258).

Hairbrushes. Rose (1899,253) reported that Mexicans gathered the fruits of Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum, trimmed off the long spines on one side to make them easier to hold, and used them as hairbrushes.

Mosquito Control. People in Algeria are said to chop up and steep the stem joints of Opuntia ficus-indica in water; the liquid is then spread over pools in which mosquito larvae are growing (Meyer and McLaughlin 1981,109, as O. vulgaris) to kill them.

Needles. Cactus spines have long been used as sewing needles, the practice dating back at least 2000 years in Peru where people of the Paracas culture used spines of Austrocylindropuntia subu-lata in this way (Ostolaza 1996,49). Leuenberger (1986,48) reports that people of Guatemala used the spines of Pereskia lychnidiflora as needles.

Perfume. Perfume has been made from the flowers of several species of Opuntia (Nobel 1994,62).

Wood from Echinopsis atacamensis in a church in Pur-mamarca, Jujuy, Argentina

Rain Sticks and Souvenir Items. A popular item sold in many regions of the world is the rain stick of Chile, made from the dried skeleton of the stem of Echinopsis chiloensis or Eulychnia acida. The dry stems are harvested in the field, cleaned, and prepared by pushing stout spines through the areolar gaps in the wood. Coarse sand is poured into the central cavity of the pith, the ends are sealed, and the surface shellacked. These are then sold locally and overseas. Rain sticks are also made from the wood of the cardon, Echinopsis atacamensis subsp. pasacana, in northwestern Argentina.

Rain sticks made from dead stems of Echinopsis chiloensis and Eulychnia acida, La Serena, Coquimbo, Chile

Internal construction of a rain stick

In addition to rain sticks, other items made from cacti may appear in the tourist market, such as canes, napkin rings, coasters, lamps, and walking sticks. However, ribs of the saguaro, Carnegiea gigantea, are actually used as walking sticks by blind or invalid Seri (Felger and Moser 1985, 248).

Shelter and Shade. The Seri sometimes use the woody ribs of Carnegiea gigantea and Stenocereus thurberi for making the frames of their wattle and mud houses (Felger and Moser 1985, 248, 260). Stem joints of Opuntia ficus-indica are propped over young tomato plants in Sicily to shield them from the sun (Gait and Gait 1978,24).

Soap. The people of Curaçao slice stem sections of Cereus répandus and use them as a shampoo substitute or for washing dishes (Morton 1967,189).

Tools. In addition to fishhooks and needles, other tools are fashioned from spines. For example, the Kawaiisu make awls from the spines of Echino-cactus polycephalus to use in their basketmaking (Moerman 1998,206). The ancient Paracas people of coastal Peru used the spines of Neoraimon-dia arequipensis to construct combs with which to work their wool in weaving fabrics (Ostolaza 1996,42).

Water Clarification. Although cacti may not be a ready source of drinking water, the Blackfoot are reported to have used the fleshy stem joints of Opuntia polyacantha to clarify muddy water. Stem joints were split and placed in a container with the water, with the "exuded sticky juice" quickly clearing the water (Johnston 1970,316). Crushed leaves of Pereskia bleo can be used in the same manner (Leuenberger 1986,48).

Continue reading here: Conservation of Cacti

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