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Why Do Cacti Have Spines Instead Of Leaves?

With the rising demand for houseplants, people have started keeping cacti and succulents in their homes due to their minimum needs. But, one question that might come to your mind when raising cacti is why they have spines instead of leaves.

Cacti are naturally found in deserts where water is scarce. So, over the years, cacti have converted their leaves into spines to reduce the loss of water through stomata in the leaves. The spines also protect cacti from predators, help regulate temperature, and collect water from the air.

If you are thinking about how spines function in so many diverse ways, don’t worry, I will explain everything in this article. So, keep reading.


I have done my best to address all of your concerns in the article below. However, if you still have any questions or are confused about the article, you can receive personalized one-on-one assistance from me by leaving a comment below. I will respond to your comment within a few hours.

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What do cacti have instead of leaves?

Cacti don’t have regular leaves that you see on most tropical or sub-tropical plants.

Cacti come from different desert regions where leaves won’t be right for the plants to survive.

The leaves will lose too much moisture, whereas desert plants need to conserve moisture to thrive.

That is why cacti have developed spines that are nothing but modified leaves.

These spines help them collect and retain moisture, helping them thrive in deserts with prolonged periods of no rain.

What are cacti spines?

As I mentioned in the previous point, cacti spines are modified leaves.

Where normal plants have leaves and branches, cacti have spines and areoles.

Since leaves are not appropriate for desert conditions, the cacti developed spines gradually.

You will be surprised to know that the functions of the leaves, such as photosynthesis, occur in the main stem for cacti.

And the leaves turned into spines so they could help the plant survive.

The cacti grow young spines that contain living tissues that form a group.

This tissue dies and takes the form of the hard and mature spines you see on the plant.

Different cacti have different colors, sizes, and shapes of spines.

Why do cacti have spines?

Now that you know cacti have spines let’s understand all the reasons behind how they help these plants survive and thrive.

1. Spines help cacti preserve water

Imagine having a moisture-loving plant in a dry place like the desert.

It will die due to a lack of humidity and moisture, right?

The same thing will happen with the cacti if they have regular leaves that most moisture-loving plants have.

Leaves transpire and lose a lot of water throughout the day, and in a desert, they will lose more water than it usually does and need moisture faster.

Here’s how spines are different.

Spines don’t allow water to evaporate through them, but they are great at collecting water from the air.

Water vapor in the air collects on the spines and travels to the roots after running down the plant.

This way, the roots can stay hydrated even during prolonged periods of drought.

Desert regions can go without rainfall for a pretty long time.

There might not be any water visible, but the air doesn’t go devoid of water.

If you know the temperature fluctuations in the deserts, you know that it is warm during the day and cool during the night.

Warm air can retain moisture, but cold air can’t retain as much.

So, when the air starts to cool down, the moisture settles on the available surfaces, including the cacti’s spines.

Regular leaves will fail to utilize this, but spines carry that moisture and send them to the roots.

This is a major reason why cacti have spines instead of leaves.

2. Spines protect the cacti

Cactus protection from animals

When we check out the cacti’s spines, this is the first thing that comes to mind, right?

At least, that’s what happened to me.

And after some research, I found out that it is true.

Spines do help protect cacti from predators.

Not many plants or animals live in desert regions.

But, the few animals there would love to feed on cacti.

This is where the sharp spines come into play.

Many animals stay away from these plants as the spines are very sharp, and coming in contact with them can cause a lot of pain.

However, a few animals can still feed on cacti without being harmed by the spines.

For example, camels, rodents, etc.

But on an overall basis, spines do protect the cacti from many predators.

3. Spines help in the reproduction of the cacti

This was a surprise as I couldn’t imagine spines could help reproduction.

Yes, I know, flowers and fruits do, but spines? Well, yes, they do too.

Here’s how.

Some cacti have spines that attach themselves to animals that go too close.

They detach themselves from the parent plant and get stuck with the skin or fur of the animals or any other object humans carry.

Eventually, they will also detach from there and fall somewhere else.

And then they will start growing from that area.

Many seeds work in the same mechanism.

But, amazingly, cacti’ spines can work similarly, too.

4. Spines provide shade

Another amazing aspect is that the spines can create shade in the desert.

Deserts are famous for being hot and devoid of shaded areas.

But cacti, with all the spines they have, can create shade even in the desert.

These spines protect the cacti from the harmful effects of the sun with the shade they create.

And as I already mentioned, these spines don’t let the water evaporate as the regular leaves do.

This way, cacti can survive long periods with no or less rainfall.

5. Spines regulate temperature

I have been raising indoor plants for a while now, and most plants dislike temperature fluctuations.

So, it got me thinking about how cacti survive such temperature fluctuations in the deserts!

Spines are the reason.

Spines create an insulating layer of air around the cacti, protecting them from heat and the large temperature fluctuation after sunset.

Although spines are thin and tiny, they can effectively protect the plant from the damage that temperature fluctuations can cause since they are so many.

Are the spines on my cacti poisonous?


Cacti spines are not particularly poisonous, but that doesn’t mean you can take them lightly.

Always wear gloves or handle the plants carefully when dealing with cacti.

The spines can damage your skin and be hard to remove, especially when dealing with barbed spines.

I have met many people who have hurt themselves with cacti spines as they were not careful enough.

So, I have been very careful myself, and I suggest you be careful too.

What will happen if a cactus does not have spines?

I have spoken to many cacti growers, and they report one common issue: their cacti losing spines.

Spines are important for cacti, even when not growing in deserts.

Without spines, the cacti lose their unique looks.

Not only that, but cacti can get damaged on their surface without the spines.

However, humans have bred many thornless varieties for consumption and decoration purposes.

Even in the wild, a few cacti don’t have spines.

These usually come from sub-tropical regions, so spines are not required for them to survive.

Will cactus spines grow back?

Cacti can grow young spines that will eventually die back, harden, and become mature spines.

But, if the mature spines are damaged, they will not grow back.

If you don’t want to break or lose the cacti’s spines, handle them with care.

Are spines and thorns the same?

Spines and thorns are not the same, even if they look alike.

I already discussed that spines are modified leaves, but thorns are not leaves but modified branches.

Plants that have thorns also have leaves of some sort.

But plants with thorns don’t come with leaves, as the thorns are the leaves.

Where do most cacti grow?

Cacti are found worldwide but mostly in desert regions.

However, some cacti grow in rainforests, mountains, jungles, and indoor gardens.

One common misconception that I had for the longest was that cacti could grow even without water.

However, that’s not true.

You won’t find cacti in places like the Sahara desert, as there is no water there.

Cacti can thrive in deserts with less rainfall and moisture, but they will still need a minimum amount of water.

The best thing about cacti is that they are the toughest plants on the planet, as they can survive adverse conditions.

Final words

If you are a cacti lover like me, you might have thousands of questions about these unique plants. I hope this article answered your query if you were wondering why they have spines instead of leaves.

Now that you know the importance and functions of spines, don’t damage them or try to get them off your cacti, as that can damage the plant. If you have kids or pets in the house, try growing cacti in a safe spot where they cannot reach them.

Also, be careful while dealing with the cacti, so you don’t get hurt by the spines. You can wear gloves or take other precautions while repotting or doing anything else with them. If the spines get damaged, wait for the plant to grow new spines.

Research: Evolutionary conversion of leaves to spines in cacti, Cactus spines, Wikipedia.

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