Cacti belong to the plant family Cactaceae that includes about 1400 species. Growing mostly in arid regions, the family is almost entirely native to the Americas and the Caribbean. Mexico is the center of diversity for the family and many iconic species are native to the American southwest, such as the saguaro cactus (pictured to the right) and organ pipe cactus (pictured below). Only one species is native to the tropics of Africa and Sri Lanka and experts think that birds may have carried the seeds of that cactus over the ocean in ancient times.
Requiring little water to survive and well-adapted to handle extreme heat, some species live for over a 100 years. Most - but not all - cacti have spines and the plants come in all sizes and shapes, from short, round plants to tall, narrow ones. Many cacti are terrestrial (growing on the ground), but some are epiphytic (growing on other plants, such as a tree), and still others are lithophytic (growing in or on rocks). Brightly-colored flowers are pollinated by bats, birds, and insects, and some are pollinated by the wind.
Ancient cultures to modern-day people have used cacti as food, dyes, herbal remedies, as garden and house plants, and more. Cacti are prized for their aesthetic qualities. Due to their incredible variety and, at times, rarity, cacti have been a source of fascination for people, from artists to scientists, and have long been popular as ornamental plants. Growing cacti is big business. Cacti are commercially-grown in nurseries throughout the world, including the United States, for domestic and international trade.
Some cacti are widespread and common; others are naturally rare. The conservation of cacti in their native habitats is of large concern. Mature cacti have been stolen from private property and even botanic gardens and National Parks because of their presumed value. But more people are learning about the threats to cacti and are turning to cultivated alternatives.
Laws & Regulations
Cacti have varying levels of rarity and protection throughout the United States, and laws vary from State to State. Some species are federally-listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It is illegal to dig up plants or pick flowers on National Parks and permitting requirements vary on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands.
In addition, the entire cactus family, including all cacti native to the United States and its territories, is listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Most of the family is listed in Appendix II, so that exports require a CITES permit. Several species are listed in the more restrictive Appendix I; this means that all imports and exports must be accompanied by a CITES permit. Cacti that are grown in nurseries can help to satisfy the international demand for these versatile plants while reducing collection pressure on wild populations.
For CITES permit information, visit our Branch of Permits page.