Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

Cacti: Pioneers of Plants. Learning from Nature

Blooming Cylindropuntia, Tenerife, Canary islands

I have a primal (if not primitive) quality I share with some curious animals. Did you ever see squirrels hiding nuts and magpies stealing sparkling things like watches or rings? I believe it may be a quirky instinct of collecting, stocking things up, though this is not a scientist’s guess.

I love collecting things, not obsessively, but still more than an average person. My biggest collecting crazes have been and still are house plants. Over the years I’ve grown hundreds of various plants at home, then at the uni, and when I moved from Russia to the UK I continued surrounding myself with plants especially cacti, as they are small and you can fit many of them on your window-sill.

In recent years, all my collecting hobbies have been replaced with books, blogging and singing-songwriting, but I still keep about twenty cacti at work.

I can’t have more, it’s pain for re-plant them. Prickly pears are not very hand-shake friendly. I learned it when me and my friend Kirill lost our way a bit while hiking in the Tenerife island: when we run out of water, the fruits of Opuntia cactus was the only source of drinkable liquid we could find. The cactus, I may be exaggerating, saved our lives. The photo below is the testimony.

I’m happily lurking behind an Opuntia cactus having survived the two day hike, Tenerife, Canary Islands, March 2008

My two decade-long experience with cacti made me think about them as little geniuses. Indeed, what can we, humans, learn about life and ourselves from cacti?

Resilience – Cacti are desert plants evolved to live in the extreme conditions of massive solar irradiation, blazing heat and almost complete lack of water. They are not a bunch of wimps: where other plants perish, cacti thrive. Humans can also adapt to difficult environments (take Inuits). Sometimes it’s good to go and live where no one else can survive. Struggling to compete in an overcrowded industry? Why not to explore new niches. Start-up businesses are all about it.

Innovation for Adaptation – Cacti had to develop multiple devices to cope with their harsh habitats. They got rid of leaves – the smaller surface area the more water is kept in. They also use thorns for protection against herbivores. They metabolise the sun energy via a type of photosynthesis, which is unique for desert plants, called CAM (crassulacean acid metabolism), and use pigments and cuticle as their sunscreen, etc. All these features are an example of functional design. So if you want to be better at something, try new ways of doing things and think about how they can be incorporated into your workflow/leisure to benefit you.

Presentation/Visibility – Cacti are almost exclusively pollinated by insects and bats, so they had to develop appealing flowers for that purpose. Often a cactus flower is even bigger than the plant bearing it and it’s filled up with delicious nectar and pollen. How do their pollinators find them? Cactus flowers produce fragrant compounds and their pigments can reflect ultraviolet, so bats and insects can spot it.
It’s the same for any entrepreneur – if you have a product you want to deliver to consumer, then you and your product have to look as fine as possible and you need to have a good marketing strategy (incentives/freebees are your nectar and advertising/sociability are your scent/color).

The cactus family consists of over 3000 species, but that’s only a tiny bit of the arid floral diversity. There’s always a new niche to explore even in places where you think it’s impossible to be done. Is there such a place on Earth?


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