Uses of cacti and succulents

People and their plants

Many cacti and succulents grown by people today are used for decoration, whether in gardens or in our homes. Most of the members of our society grow plants for their own enjoyment. The shapes and colours of cacti and succulents are varied and beautiful, and some can even grow outside in Britain! Cacti and succulents can be used to create beautiful displays or enjoyed on their own. Growing plants is very satisfying and many people find it a great way to relax and improve their well-being.

Relaxing and repotting

Cacti and succulents are also grown the world over for more practical reasons, and many of these plants have been cultivated by humans for hundreds to thousands of years. Here are some of the main ways that people have used these plants over the years.


The prickly pear or Opuntia cactus is probably the most famous of all cacti that are eaten as food, and the most common prickly pear is the Barbary fig (Opuntia ficus-indica). Opuntia are native to the Americas and play a big part in the traditional cuisine of Mexico.

They have also been exported to many countries and the fruit can be found in markets the world over (the common name Barbary fig relates to how popular they are in North Africa).

Both the fruit and the pads of Opuntia cacti are eaten. The fruit is sweet and filled with small edible seeds. It tastes a bit like melon or strawberry. Usually, the fruit are enjoyed raw but they are also used as flavourings in drinks and sweets, and can be made into jams and jellies.

The pads from prickly pears are known as nopales in Mexico. Of course, the spines need to be removed from the pads before they can be used!

Nopales can be eaten raw or cooked and are used in many different dishes. Some of the most popular are huevos con nopales (with eggs), carne con nopales (with meat) and in tacos. They are supposed to taste a bit like green beans and are rich in vitamin C, manganese, calcium, and magnesium.

Prickly pear fruit prepared and ready to eat
Tomás Castelazo, Prickly pearsCC BY-SA 2.5
A Mexican salad with sliced nopales
jlastras, Nopal11CC BY 2.0
A dragonfruit farm
chrisada, Dragonfruit treeCC BY 2.0

Dragonfruit, also known as pitahaya, also come from cacti. These cacti are epiphytes: they grow hanging from trees in the wild, so farmers strap the cacti to wooden supports and grow them hanging from the top end.

Dragonfruit comes in a range of colours that grow on different, but closely related species of cacti. There are white-fleshed dragonfruit (Selenicereus undatus), red-fleshed dragonfruit (Selenicereus costaricensis), and yellow dragonfruit (Selenicereus megalanthus).

These plants are native to the Americas but are grown across the warmer regions of the world. Dragonfruit is particularly popular in parts of Asia, for example in Thailand.

Different colours of dragonfruit
Roei.tabakPitaya ColorsCC BY-SA 4.0

Many other cacti and succulents are edible and eaten across the world. For example, the flowers of yucca plants are eaten in El Salvador in a dish called cogollo de izote. In southern Africa, the purslane tree (Portulacaria afra) is both eaten by people in soups and salads and fed to livestock. It looks a lot like jade plants (Crassula ovata) but it’s very important not to confuse the two as jade plants are toxic! We use purslane (Portulaca oleracea) in salads in the UK.


Across Central and South America, and particularly in Mexico, the sugars from succulent Agave plants are used to make several alcoholic drinks, including pulque, mezcal, and tequila. Someone that farms Agave plants to make mescal and tequila is called a jimador.

To make tequila, the leaves are cut away from an adult plant using a tool called a coa. This leaves the heart of the plant, known as a piña (because it looks like a pineapple). These are cut into smaller chunks and roasted in an oven to release the plant’s sugars and to add flavour.

After roasting, the softened flesh is shredded and turned into a mash by milling it on a grindstone or in a trough. Water and yeast are added to the mash and the yeast starts the process of fermentation (changing sugars into alcohol). The juice ferments in vats for several days, then collected and distilled to make the finished tequila.

Mezcal is made in a similar way but uses a range of different kinds of Agave, not just the famous ‘Weber Azul’ which is used for tequila. Both tequila and mezcal need to be distilled and began to be produced in Mexico after the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, bringing distillation technology with them.

Pulque is a very different drink, and more traditional and ancient. It is sour and milky, with a thicker consistency, and made by fermenting the sap drained from stems, rather than cooking the hearts of the plants. It has been made Central American people for several thousand years and was traditionally a sacred drink that only certain members of society were allowed to drink. Several Aztec myths and stories around the goddess Mayahuel (goddess of maguey/Agave) involve pulque.

A plantation of Agave tequilana ‘Weber Azul’, from which tequila is made
Placing the prepared piña into the oven
Crushing the roasted Agave to make a mash
Fibres inside the leaf of an Agave


The Aztec and Mayan people traditionally used Agave to make fabric and paper. Today, the sisal plant (Agave sisalana) is the main species used for producing fibres. Sisal is used for rope and twine, and also in clothing, carpets, and many other goods. The fibres are extracted from the plants by crushing them and pulling them apart on wheels with sharp knives that eventually remove any traces of the plant’s flesh.

Bales of sisal fibres

Medicine and cosmetics

The most well-known use of a succulent in medicine and cosmetics is Aloe vera. This plant has a gel inside its leaves when they are cut open. The gel has soothing properties which are used to treat wounds, burns, and ulcers.

Aloe has been used in medicine for several thousand years: the earliest known mention comes from an Ancient Egyptian scroll dating back to 1,500 BCE! According to Greek legend, Alexander the Great was inspired to conquer the island of Socotra (now part of Yemen), in the Indian Ocean, to gain medicinal supplies for his armies, because many Aloe plants grew there.

These days, Aloe vera gel is most often used in aftersun lotion. It is also sometimes juiced or cubed and added as a flavouring in drinks like bubble tea.

Caution: not all Aloe is safe to use! There are many kinds of Aloe apart from Aloe vera and some have irritating or toxic sap, so don’t ever put plant gel on your skin unless you are certain that it is safe!


Like all plants, cacti and succulents attract insects and other animals that feed on the juicy tissues of the plant. We would consider these insects pests if we found them on plants we were growing at home! But in the wild, they are an important part of the ecosystem. Some are even used by people.

Cochineal insects on the pad of a prickly pear cactus (Opuntia)
Dick CulbertDactylopius coccus (8410000864)CC BY 2.0
Carmine powder
MOs810Koszenila, LebaCC BY-SA 4.0

The cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus) is often called mealybug by plant growers because it leaves a white “mealy” wax where it makes its nests. They are native to the Americas and particularly like to feed on prickly pear cacti (Opuntia).

When they are squashed, their insides are a bright red colour from a chemical called carminic acid. It is this acid that humans have used for many hundreds of years, as it is the origin of a red pigment called carmine. Today, carmine is usually used as a food colouring or in lipstick (E120), but it was traditionally used for colouring fabric.

South American people have farmed cochineal insects to use in dye for over a thousand years. A cactus farm is called a nopalry. The traditional method of farming is by planting infested pads of the Opuntia cacti so they grow into new plants or by moving the living insects by hand and putting them on plants. When the insects are around 90 days old, they are collected by brushing or picking from the cacti. The acid is extracted and mixed with mineral salts to make the dye.

A drawing from 1777 showing an Aztec person collecting cochineal insects from cacti

0 Item | £0.00
View Basket