From arid deserts to rocky mountain slopes, succulent adaptations allow them to thrive in harsh conditions. Succulents (including cactus) are a diverse group of plants known for their ability to survive in extreme environments where most plants cannot. Keep scrolling to learn more about 12 succulent adaptations that help them survive.
Succulent Adaptation: Thick, Waxy Leaves
One of the most well-known succulent adaptations is their thick, waxy leaves. These leaves are coated with a thick layer of cuticle, a waxy substance that helps to reduce water loss and prevent the plant from drying out. The coating also helps prevent pest infestations making it hard for insects to suck the sap out of succulents. The thick, fleshy leaves of succulents are also able to store water, which allows the plant to survive prolonged periods of drought.
Succulent Adaptation: Cactus Corking
Corking is also considered an adaptation of cactus and succulents like Euphorbia. Corking refers to the development of a protective layer of thick cork cells on the stem and trunk of a cactus that helps to reduce water loss and protect the plant from damage. This adaptation helps cactus survive in harsh desert environments, where water is limited and temperature fluctuations are extreme.
More on this topic: Cactus Corking: What You Need to Know About This Common Problem
Succulent Adaptation: Spines and Prickles and Shapes
Another one of the most well known adaptations of cactus and some succulents is having spines or prickles. Many succulents, especially cacti, have spines or prickles that help to protect the plant from herbivores. Reducing water loss by shading the plant and creating a microclimate that is cooler and more humid is another great adaptation of cactus plants in the hot, dry desert habitat. In addition to their protective function, cactus spines also serve as effective “dew catchers” by directing water droplets into their cells.
Over time, cacti and succulents have evolved to grow in shapes with smaller surface areas which helps to reduce water loss. The corrugated sides of cactus help them survive in hot conditions. The peaks of the corrugations provide more shade than a round, smooth shape would, helping the cactus stay cool. The corrugated shape is one of the adaptations of cactus that helps it store water during rare rain in the desert. It can expand, and the internal structure of the cactus has evolved to have hollow centers and fibers arranged in a circular pattern, making it easier to store water. When water is scarce, the cactus is able to contract its water storing cells.
It is possible to remove cactus spines without harming the plant, but it is important to do so with care to avoid damaging the stem or injuring yourself. Here’s how:
- Use protective gloves to prevent injury from the spines.
- Cut or pluck the spines away from the cactus, being careful not to damage the stem.
- Disinfect the wound with a mixture of water and household disinfectant to prevent infection.
- Cover the wound with a protective covering, such as wax or a wound sealant, to protect the cactus from further damage and to prevent it from drying out.
It’s important to note that removing the spines from a cactus can make it more vulnerable to herbivores and other threats, so it’s a good idea to consider the reasons why the spines are present before removing them. Additionally, some cacti are more sensitive to spines being removed than others, and removing them can impact the plant’s overall health.
Succulent Adaptation: Photosynthesis in Low Light Conditions
Succulents are often found in environments with low light levels, such as rocky slopes or deep canyons. One of the adaptations of cactus and succulents is that they have evolved the ability to perform photosynthesis at lower light levels than other plants without etiolating or stretching. This allows them to continue to produce energy and survive in these harsh environments. One of the unique adaptations of cactus is that they are able to efficiently photosynthesize during the limited hours of bright sun exposure in their native desert environment.
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Succulent Adaptation: Deep Roots
Another succulent adaptation is that some, like aloe, have developed thick, deep roots that allow them to access water and nutrients that may be scarce at the surface. These thick, deep roots also help to anchor the plant in place and prevent it from being blown over by strong winds. This is why you rarely see tall cactus being affected by strong winds. They aren’t invincible to strong winds though. Some fallen cactus have made the news because of how old and large they are.
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Taproots are considered one of the adaptations of cactus. Taproots are deep, thick roots that grow straight down into the soil, allowing cactus to access water sources far below the surface. This adaptation helps cactus survive in harsh desert environments where water is limited and helps the plant access water even in times of drought. The taproot adaptation is crucial for the survival of cactus in these harsh conditions.
The ability to quickly grow root hairs on fibrous roots allows cactus to collect even the smallest amount of water during rainfall. Once the ground dries, these root hairs die, conserving water and energy for the cactus.
Succulent Adaptation: Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM)
One of the coolest succulent adaptations is CAM. Many succulents have evolved a specialized form of photosynthesis known as Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, or CAM. This process allows the plant to open its stomata, or tiny pores on its leaves, at night to take in carbon dioxide. This helps to reduce water loss during the day.
By opening its stomata at night and closing them during the day, the plant is able to minimize water loss through transpiration. This adaptation allows succulents with CAM photosynthesis to survive in environments with high temperatures and low humidity. In addition to its water-saving benefits, CAM photosynthesis also allows the plant to take in carbon dioxide at a time when there is less competition from other plants.
Some examples of succulents with CAM photosynthesis include the sedum, crassula, agave, and kalanchoe. These plants are able to survive in hot, dry environments thanks to their ability to perform photosynthesis under low light conditions and reduce water loss through their specialized stomata.
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Succulent Adaptation: Dormancy
Succulents are able to survive prolonged periods of drought by going into a state of dormancy. During this time, the plant will stop growing and conserve its energy and resources until conditions improve. This adaptation of cactus and succulents allows the plant to survive in environments where water is scarce. You might notice soft succulent leaves falling off during dormancy. This is another succulent adaptation which allows it to conserve energy.
Succulent Adaptation: Mutualistic Relationships
Some succulent adaptations are mutualistic relationships with other organisms, such as insects or birds, that help to disperse their seeds or pollinate their flowers. For example, the barrel cactus has evolved a relationship with the lesser long-nosed bat, which feeds on the nectar of the cactus flowers and helps to pollinate the plant.
Succulent Adaptation: Aesthetic Value
In addition to their practical adaptations, succulents have also evolved a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors that make them attractive to humans. This aesthetic value has helped to make succulents popular as decorative indoor plants in homes and gardens around the world.
Succulent Adaptation: Adaptive Radiation
One example of succulent adaptions at a higher level is the diversification of cacti. Cacti are a group of plants that are adapted to survive in arid and semi-arid regions. The morphological, physiological, and behavioral adaptations of cactus allow them to survive in these harsh environments.
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One of the most notable adaptations of cactus is their ability to store water in their stems and leaves, which enables them to survive prolonged periods of drought. In addition, many cacti have developed thick, fleshy stem and leaves that help to reduce water loss through transpiration. They also have adapted unique photosynthesis mechanism, known as CAM (Crassulacean acid metabolism), which allows them to conserve water by only opening their stomata at night, when the air is cooler and more humid.
Cacti also show a wide range of diversity in size, shape and habitats across the Americas, where they radiated and diversified over time. From tiny, globular cacti like Mammillaria to tall, columnar cacti such as Pachycereus or the grandiose Saguaro, or from species growing on rocky outcrops to others that grow on trees, the adaptations of cactus allow them to survive in an extremely wide range of ecological niches.
This adaptive radiation of cacti is an example of how a single ancestral species can diverge into multiple descendant species with a variety of different characteristics, allowing them to exploit different resources and tolerate different environmental conditions, increasing biodiversity over time. You’ll sometimes see very similar plants with similar names that thrive in slightly different conditions.
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Succulent Adaptation: Bright Colors Attract Pollinators
The colorful patterns on many echeverias and other succulents are not just decorative. They are often signals to pollinators such as bees that the plant is healthy and producing nectar. The vibrant colors also protect the plant by shielding the chlorophyll in the leaves from intense sunlight. The flowering times of succulents are often triggered by rain to maximize the chance of successful pollination. The rain stimulates the plant to flower, and also triggers the activity of their pollinators. So succulent flowers frequently emerge after rain and are an adaptation to arid environments with intermittent, unpredictable rain.
What are some common pollinators for succulents?
Common pollinators for succulents include:
• Bees – Bees are attracted to the nectar-producing flowers of many succulents like aloes, echeverias, and kalanchoes. The bees then transfer pollen between flowers, allowing the succulents to reproduce.
• Hummingbirds – Hummingbirds visit the brightly colored, nectar-rich flowers of many succulents like aloes, agaves, and red sedums. As the hummingbirds drink the nectar, they also transfer pollen between flowers.
• Moths – Certain plants like moonstones and night-blooming jasmine cactus have white or pale-colored flowers that open at night as their succulent adaptation. These are pollinated by moths that are nocturnal feeders. The moths visit the flowers for nectar and transfer pollen between different blooms.
• Flies – Some succulents produce foul odors or dung-like scents that attract pollen-feeding flies and beetles. Although the smell is unpleasant to us, it draws in these insect pollinators that then transfer pollen as they move between stinky flowers. Certain types of aloe and haworthia succulents utilize these smelly, fly-pollinated flowers.
Succulent Adaptation: Transparent Windows
Certain succulents have transparent leaves or leaf windows that allow light to reach the chlorophyll deep inside the plant. This is a succulent adaptation to reduce the surface area of the leaves that can lead to water loss.
Transparent windows are succulent adaptations that allow light to penetrate deeper into the leaf structure. By having clear, window-like patches on their leaves, succulents can absorb more light for photosynthesis without increasing the total surface area of the leaves. This minimizes water loss through the leaves since there is less opaque leaf material exposed to the air.
The transparent windows are made of colorless, translucent leaf tissue that acts as a “window” to let light through to the chlorophyll-containing mesophyll cells below. The mesophyll cells can then photosynthesize normally, but the succulent does not lose as much water as it would with fully green, opaque leaves. This succulent adaptation is particularly useful for ones growing in very hot or arid environments where water loss is a concern. Some succulents, like Lithops and Aloe polyphylla, utilize these specialized transparent leaf windows.
Succulents and cactus are a diverse group of plants that have evolved a wide range of adaptations to survive in extreme environments where foliage plants would certainly die. From thick, waxy leaves to deep roots and specialized forms of photosynthesis, these plants have developed unique strategies to thrive in some of the harshest conditions on Earth.