Have you always wondered what part of the world your cactus or succulent plant comes from? From the Americas or maybe from Asia? From Africa or Europe? The topic of succulent plant distribution is vast and very intricate. However, to begin to simplify, we can say that all cacti are native to the Americas, while succulent plants in general (i.e. non-cactaceous succulents) come from different parts of the world.
In this article and in the two large maps attached, we see how cacti and non-cacti succulents are distributed around the world. We see in particular from which geographical areas the succulents originally evolved.
The photos on this page were taken during my trips to Mexico, the United States and the Exotic Garden of Monte Carlo.
The family of Cactaceae includes only succulent species, i.e. plants capable of accumulating liquids in the stem or in the leaves. If succulent plants (those which are commonly called “fat plants”) in nature are present in all continents, from the Americas to Asia, the family of Cactaceae is instead native to the American continent only.
It’s only on this continent that cacti were born and distributed. If today we find cacti such as Opuntia in many other parts of the world (in Sicily, on the French Riviera or in Australia) it’s just because these plants have “naturalized” in these places as a result of imports by man. This is what has happened with other succulent families, such as Agave and Aloe, which are now naturalized in many parts of the planet, even though they are native to Central America (Agave) and Africa (Aloe).
In nature, so we find succulent plants in almost every corner of the planet, but they are different families from the cacti. We can have mesembryanthemums (such as Lithops and Titanopsis), Crassulaceae, Portulacaceae, Asclepiadaceae, Aizoaceae native to Africa, for example. Or Agavaceae, native to the central states of the American continent, and didiereaceae, native to Africa and Madagascar. Cactaceae, instead, in nature is a plant exclusively from the New World.
To understand and learn how to classify the various succulent plants, identifying the main families (Cactaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Agavaceae, etc.), you can read a specific article at this link.
According to the researcher, Laura Guglielmone in her beautiful book “Succulents in nature“, published by the italian association “Cactus&Co”, the family of Cactaceae originated in South America between 100 and 90 million years ago. From there, the cacti have then differentiated and widespread throughout the American continent, from the border between the United States and Canada to Patagonia. The ancestor of the cactus, if we can put it that way, is represented by the plants of the genus Pereskia. Still cultivated today, especially as graft carriers, the plants of this genus have the characteristic thorns of the cactus (in fact the evolution of the leaves devised by the plants of this family to reduce the transpiration of internal liquids in the face of drought), but they still have real leaves. The leaves are a legacy of the past when the plants were just at the beginning of their transition and the periods of drought were still limited.
Remaining on the American continent, in the extreme north, we have plants like Opuntia fragilis and plants like Maihuenopsis and Pterocactus at the antipodes, in the extreme south. In the middle, we can find all the kinds of cactus we know and cultivate: from Escobaria, which grow at the borders with Canada and in many American states, to Ariocarpus, native to the area between Texas and Mexico, up to Turbinicarpus and Mammillaria, which grow in Mexico. Going down, we have Epiphyllum and Rhipsalis in Central America; Melocactus, Echinopsis, Uebelmannia in Brazil; Lobivia, Rebutia and Sulcorebutia in Bolivia; Acanthocalycium and Gymnocaclycium in Argentina and Uruguay; Copiapoa, Neoporteria, Eulychnia, Tephrocactus in Chile.
Contrary to what is carved in the collective imagination, which superficially confines cacti in unspecified “deserts”, these plants live just in any condition. They thrive from desert to sub-desert areas, from rainforests to the hot deserts of the Mojave, Sonora and Chihuahua; they grow in flat areas and close to the sea, up to the high altitudes as the Andean mountains, where several species of cactus such as Copiapoa, Eulychnia, Eriosyce/Neoporteria live over two thousand meters.
American Succulents – Obviously, in the Americas don’t grow only cacti. Many other non-cacti succulent plants thrive on this continent.
In North America and Mexico, for example, we find Agave, Dioscorea, Graptopetalum, Jatropha, Lewisia, Nolina, Peperomia, Portulaca, Yucca and many Crassulaceae such as Echeveria, Pachyphytum and Sedum.
In South America grow succulents such as Chorisia, Euphorbia, Jatropha, Peperomia, Sinningia, Tradescantia and bromeliads such as Tillandsia.
The map of cacti
By clicking here, you can open a pdf with an infographic about the distribution of cacti in the Americas (you can zoom in or out on the map). The map can be read in two different way, as you prefer: on the sides are listed the genera of cacti in alphabetical order, with the countries where these plants are found; on the map itself are listed the states with a link to the species of cacti native to those specific places.
Succulent plants, not Cactaceae, as said before, have their origin not only in the American continent but all over the world. Their distribution in nature, not determined by the action of man, is widespread on all continents, from Africa to Asia, from Europe to the Americas, up to Oceania. Here below is an overview of the various continents and the species that can be found there.
African succulents – In Eastern Africa (which includes southern Arabia) grow genera of succulents frequently in the cultivations of enthusiasts, such as Adenium, Aloe, Cissus, Dorstenia, Euphorbia, Jatropha, Kalanchoe, Sanseveria, Senecio. In this area also thrive plants of the Apocynaceae family such as Echidnopsis, Huernia, Orbea, Pachypodium.
In southern Africa, we can find succulents of the genera Adenia, Adromischus, Aloe, Cissus, Dioscorea, Dorstenia, Euphorbia, Fockea, Gasteria, Haworthia, Ipomea, Kalanchoe, Pelargonium, Portulacaria, Sanseveria, Sarcocaulon, Scilla, Senecio, Tylecodon. In this area also grow several species of Apocynaceae such as Ceropegia, Stapelia, Hoodia, Huernia, Pachypodium, Sarcostemma, many Aizoaceae such as Lithops, mesembryanthemums such as Titanopsis and Crassulaceae such as Crassula and Cotyledon.
Succulents of Madagascar – The vegetation (but also the fauna) of this island off the southern coast of Africa is rich. Among the succulent species known between enthusiasts and collectors, we have Aloe, Euphorbia, Kalanchoe, Ipomea, Senecio, Seyrigia, Uncarina and various species of Apocynaceae such as Edithcolea and Pachypodium.
Asian succulents – In India, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Japan we find succulent genera such as Caralluma, Cycas, Euphorbia, Senecio, Hoya, Orostachys, Phyllacanthus and Rhipsalis and the ubiquitous Sedum.
Australian succulents – Species such as Brachychiton, Cycas, Portulaca, Sarcostemma and Xanthorrhoea thrive on this continent.
European succulents – In Europe, in nature, we can see growing many species of Sedum, many Sempervivum (typical of alpine and mountainous regions), then Scilla and some plants of the family of Apocynaceae, such as Apteranthes.
Succulents in Italy – It is interesting to notice how many succulents grow spontaneously also in Italy. In our country, as Laura Guglielmone notes in “Succulents in nature”, “133 succulent species have been surveyed, of which more than 50% are of allochthonous origin”. In other words, more than half of the succulent plants growing wild in Italy have been brought here by man. “Among them – writes Laura Guglielmone -, besides the species of the already mentioned genera Agave and Opuntia, Yucca aloifolia and Y. Gloriosa (Agavaceae), the Cactaceae Lobivia sylvestrii and some Aizoaceae (Carpobrotus edulis, Malephora crocea, Tetragonia tetragonoides” (Guglielmone et al., 2009).
The map of succulents
From this link, you can open the pdf of the map relating to the distribution of succulents in the world (you can zoom in or out the map at will). This map, like the other one, can be read in two different way, as you prefer: on the sides are indicated the succulent species in alphabetical order with their places of origin; on the map itself are indicated the states with the link to the species that live in those places.
This article has been written consulting the volumes: “Succulents in nature” (by Laura Guglielmone, ed. Cactus&Co. Libri) and “La connaissance des succulentes et xérophytes du monde” (by Francis Bugaret, ed. Édisud). For the realization of the maps, in addition to the quoted books, I also consulted the site www.llifle.com.
All the graphics are by my partner Alessandra (see her profile on Instagram).
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