Cactus may make many people think of the desert, but these prickly plants are also key Caribbean species. The things that help them survive in the desert can help them in a place like St. Martin. Their survival strategies can also help them bounce back after a hurricane.
The Doodle Doo Cactus grows in long columns. It’s also known as a columnar cactus, pipe organ cactus or dildo cactus. Although the tall branches are strong, they are often broken by hurricane winds. The trunk of this tree-sized cactus can survive even when its branches are blown off.
The broken branches of the Doodle Doo can regenerate new cacti. This is actually a common way that cacti reproduce and spread. The small Prickly Pear Cactus on St. Martin is even known in French as the Raquette Volante or “flying racket” because the cactus pads seem to jump out and attach them to unlucky people walking by.
Hurricanes may help cacti spread by blowing pieces of cactus to new locations where they can grow. They may also give cacti a head start by clearing leaves. Cacti grow slowly, so they have trouble competing with other plants for light. That’s one reason why we often see cacti in difficult places—like rocky cliffs—where other plants can’t grow.
The ability to live in spaces where almost nothing else can grow may also help cacti survive hurricanes. The Turk’s Head cactus often lives on rocky seaside cliffs. To live there at all requires the strength to cling to bare rock and the ability to withstand wind and waves. These cacti are low to the ground and have roots that wind into cracks in the rock. For them, a hurricane is simply a much worse version of the difficult conditions they already face.
The fact that cacti can survive hurricanes is a big benefit to a hurricane-struck island. When all fruit and leaves have been stripped from trees, pieces of cactus can provide food and water to many animals. In between hurricanes, it is important to protect cacti. Some are stolen to plant in backyards, many are trampled by goats and other livestock. Let’s keep our prickly pals happy so they can help us during times of need.