There are over 2000 species of cacti plants with some being edible and some poisonous. With so many types growing in different parts of the world, it is hard to know which ones are poisonous. Of course, when you are not sure, don’t try and eat something.
NOTE: No information presented here should be seen as medical advice or as advice on which cacti to eat or not. Again, if in doubt, don’t eat it! And if you are not comfortable treating yourself with first aid, please seek professional medical attention immediately!
What Cacti are Poisonous
Some cactus varieties are poisonous while most aren’t. If you’re a beginner, it’s hard to tell a poisonous cactus by just looking at it. So, which cacti should you avoid as you go about shopping for succulents?
1. Peruvian Torch Cactus/ Echinopsis Peruviana
This cactus originates from the western slopes of the Andes. The plant grows quite fast and appears tall with some ribbed stems and white flowers. This poisonous cactus variety contains some hallucinogens such as mescaline.
2. Barrel Cactus
This type of cactus originates from the northwestern part of North America. It has fleshy leaves and a thick layer of spines to protect the flesh. However, the stems contain a latex-like liquid that is toxic when it comes into contact with human skin. Make sure to wear gloves when handling this poisonous cactus species.
3. Peyote Cactus
Peyote cactus is mainly found in parts of Peru, the Southwest USA, and some parts of Mexico. It is a slow-growing plant that has no spines.
This species of cactus is often illegal to grow in some regions because of its high levels of hallucinogens. This cactus variety is so poisonous that it is often used in the preparation of illegal drugs.
4. Euphorbia Canariensis/ Canary Island Spurge
The Canary Island Spurge is a small cactus that grows to form a shrub and has long straight stems. All the parts of this cactus are toxic if ingested and can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
The plant contains a milky sap known as cycasin which can cause irritation to eyes and skin. Notably, the Canary Island Spurge stems break off easily splashing the sap. When handling the cactus you need to wear gloves and protective eye glasses.
5. Pencil Cactus/ Euphorbia Tirucall
The Pencil cactus comes from South Africa and India. It grows tall stems that branch several times to look like a bunch of pencils stuck together. The plant contains a latex-like sap that is poisonous to animals and humans.
It causes skin irritation and if it gets into the eyes. If left in eyes for too long without flushing, it can lead to blindness!
6. The Prickly Pear
While the Prickly Pear cactus has edible fruits that are used in the production of jellies and smoothies, the stems of this cactus contain a toxic sap that irritates the skin. If you are harvesting the fruits, wear gloves to protect against not only the spines but also the sap.
7. San Pedro Cactus/ Echinopsis Pachanoi
The San Pedro Cactus grows in several areas of South America. This cacti variety is characterized by bright flowers and beautiful spines. Usually, the plant is used for recreation and medicinal purposes.
If abused, the cactus can cause hallucinations, especially in persons with mental illnesses, due to the high amounts of mescaline and other alkaloids.
Are Cactus Spines or Needles Poisonous
No, cactus spines or needles are not poisonous. However, they can be dangerous if they prick your skin. This is especially so for the hairlike spines that may penetrate deep into the skin causing bruising, bleeding, or killing body tissues.
What Happens if you Touch a Cactus and it Pricks You
If you get pricked by a cactus, you should immediately clean the area with soap and cold water to reduce swelling. Dry the area with a clean towel and apply an antibiotic ointment to prevent any infection.
How to Get Cactus Spines out of Skin
A cactus spine pricking your skin as you tend your plants in the garden can ruin an otherwise good day. Luckily, it’s easy to remove a single spine lodged into your skin. You only need a pair of tweezers.
Get a good grip on the edge of the spine using the tweezers and pull out at a straight angle so that the spine doesn’t break off leaving an edge inside your skin.
If the spine is too deep in the skin, use a sterilized needle to dig it out as gently as possible. If you don’t manage to remove the spine, you may need to see a doctor, especially if it is large or starts to fester.
Make sure to remove the entire cactus spine from your skin
Do not remove the spines using your teeth because they could accidentally end up pricking your tongue. Worse still, the spines could end up in your throat.
After removing the spine, clean the pricked area using some water and soap for about 5-10 minutes, pat dry, and apply an antibiotic. Finally, cover with a bandage and observe for any signs of infection such as redness and swelling.
What do You do if You are Swelling from a Cactus Prick
After getting pricked by a cactus, you may get swelling. The swelling often happens due to irritation of skin and tissue when trying to dislodge stuck spines.
If your skin starts to turn red and swollen, you can apply hydrocortisone cream or ice to reduce the inflammation. If the swelling persists and you also start feeling nausea, vomiting, or fever, you should consider going to the hospital for further treatment.
Can a Cactus Infect You
Cactus in itself cannot infect you but a prick can lead to inflammation, redness, swelling, and infections. However, if you correctly remove any spines, clean the area, and disinfect it, there won’t be any long-term health complications.
What are Cactus Spines Made of?
Cactus spines are adaptations of the leaves. Cactus spines are made of fibers surrounded by epidermis cells. Unlike actual leaves, spines don’t have any stomata. When growing, the spines have living cells at their base but once they mature, they are only composed of dead cells.
What Types of Cactus Spines are there
Spines can be either soft or hard and their main purpose is to keep predators away by inflicting pain. There are many types of spines but the most common ones are glochids and bristles.
Glochids look like small hairs known as barbs and are the most dangerous types of cactus thorns. This is because the barbs stick onto surfaces and are stubborn to remove.
In fact, glochids may tear tissue when pulling out of skin. You can hardly see glochids on the skin but you can definitely feel them irritating you. Bristles also look like tiny hairs but are not as soft as glochids.
Is there Anything You Can Do to Prevent Cactus Pricks
If you get pricked by a cactus, it’s crucial to act fast because the spines are full of contaminants. If left untreated, the punctures may develop into an infection. As cliché as it sounds, prevention is always better than cure. These tips will protect you from cactus pricks and also help you take care of your thorny plant without damaging it.
- Wear gloves
- Protect eyes with glasses
- Use tongs
- Try chopsticks
- Use paper
- Wear old clothing
Gloves are a must-have if you’re a cactus gardener. They will prevent most spines from getting through your skin whenever you’re tending to your plant. As you hold the plant, take care not to grasp it too tight because some spines can penetrate through a glove.
Protect Eyes with Glasses
Just like your hands, your eyes are not immune to pricks. Since an eye prick can be incredibly painful, it’s better to avoid it if you can. The best way to do this is by wearing some protective glasses when you weed, prune, or even water your cactus.
Tongs come in handy when dealing with small species of cacti. You can use tongs made out of metal, plastic, or silicon. As you grip your cactus, make it firm but don’t damage your plant.
Another alternative when handling small cacti is the use of chopsticks. These can help you gently move your plant from one place to another without getting pricked. You should however learn how to use chopsticks correctly lest you end up dropping the plant and damaging it.
You can safely handle your cactus without actually buying special equipment. For this, you’ll need to look for old papers lying around your home. Stack several on top of each other so there are several layers. You want to ensure that you use them in layers or some spines could end up on your skin.
We all have those clothes that we aren’t sure how to dispose of. Look for clothes with thick material and use them to hold your cactus. You can also wad the clothes up or stack them in layers like the paper.
Are Cactus Poisonous to Drink
A cactus doesn’t store liquid water but a fleshy pulp. Contrary to many myths, this pulp is not a safe substitute for drinking water. You may have heard stories about survival in the desert where people have had to drink water from cacti. Eating or drinking large amounts of this cactus pulp is poisonous. Cactus poisoning will cause you to vomit, diarrhea, and even have temporary paralysis.
Which Cactus are Commonly Eaten and What to Avoid
You can enjoy some cactus varieties raw, grilled, in smoothies, or in jellies. Yes, you heard that right! But, what types of cacti can you eat?
The Saguaro cactus is one of the largest of the edible cactus. It has been eaten by ancient communities in Mexico for centuries. It is a sought-after delicacy with some sacred meaning in some regions.
The dragon fruit is another edible cactus and don’t let the name deceive you because it is a sweet and fragrant fruit. The outer covering of the fruit is hard and bitter in taste but once you peel it off, the inside is sweet.
Prickly pear is also edible either as a fruit or a salad. The paddle of the fruit has sharp glochids you need to scrape off, the paddle makes a great delicacy if you cook it as a vegetable or as part of a salad dressing.
The red fruit inside is also sweet and fragrant. Take care not to get into contact with the sap on the stems because it can lead to skin irritation.
The cholla cactus is another unique variety of cacti. While its fruit is edible, the unopened flower buds also make a sweet delicacy. The flower buds are rich in calcium but you need to be careful when preparing them because they often have glochids.
Some species of barrel cactus don’t have any spines thus making it easy to access the fruits. Unlike other types of edible cacti, the barrel cactus fruits aren’t sweet. They have a tart lemon taste.
The seeds of the barrel cactus are also edible but not raw or plain. The seeds should be dried and ground to be incorporated in bread or beverages. You can also eat the stems as part of a salad.
Are Cactus Poisonous to Dogs or Cats
Most cactus varieties are not poisonous to pets such as cats and dogs. As a pet owner, it is important that you don’t plant poisonous cactus species mentioned above near your pets.
Even if your cactus isn’t poisonous, pricks could irritate the skin or mouth of your pet. It’s advisable to place cacti plants where the pets cannot reach them. If your pet ingests or gets pricked by a cactus, watch for a reaction and take them to a vet to ensure proper treatment.
Are Cactus Poisonous to Children
Most cacti are not poisonous to children but if ingested, they may cause vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. Ensure that the cactus you plant is not poisonous .
If you suspect your child may have ingested the cactus sap, take them to the nearest hospital for treatment. As a precaution, it’s best to place cactus plants far from children or plant them in terrariums.
Of course, the spines will always be a problem for children. And kids are constantly wanting to touch cactus spines. Make sure to gently but thoroughly remove any cactus spines that may embed themselves in your child’s skin.
There are so many varieties of cacti found in different regions. Some are poisonous while others make great delicacies. It is important to understand the type of cactus you have in your garden so that you know how to take care of it as well as how to protect yourself, your pets, and your children.