Though the most commonly used lumber in the United States comes from large trees that pack North American forests, wood comes from myriad sources. Localized cultures throughout the world have used a wide spectrum of woods over the centuries for countless purposes. Cactus wood comes from a number of sources and provided various uses to different cultures over the years. A full understanding of cactus wood includes exploration of its origins, biology, uses and other interesting information on the material.
Where Cactus Wood Comes From
Cactus wood comes, somewhat obviously, from cacti. Various types of cactus plants produce wood, though unlike common wood producers like pine, maple and oak trees, the wood of cactus is hidden behind the plants' layers. Cacti contain layers of spines that provide protection from animals and, in some cases, the sun. These spines attach to the thick green or gray skin of the cactus, which helps retain moisture by preventing transpiration, or evaporation. Underneath this skin, large species of cactus possess thick wood bodies much like those of small trees.
Biology of Cactus Wood
Cacti exhibit specific tendencies through their wood. Many cactus species exhibit polymorphic wood growth. This means the plants grow different types of wood at different stages in their development. All large species of cacti possess wood with especially high fiber content, which makes the wood extremely strong. Cactus plants evolve such that successive generations of plants store larger amounts of water in their wood than did their parents. Storing water in the wood with the use of specialized vessels increases the overall storage capacity of a plant and allows it to withstand longer periods of drought that it could without storing water in such a way.
Uses of Cactus Wood
Furniture makers in regions like the American Southwest use cactus wood as a construction material, particularly the wood from the saguaro and cholla species. Craftspeople fashion chairs, tables, clocks, lamps, boxes and more from this porous wood. The Seri American Indians used cactus wood for making fires and also fashioned wooden drills used to create sparks for starting fires from cactus wood. Generally, cactus wood is collected dead from the desert floor to minimize the danger and tremendous work effort required of culling wood from a living cactus.
Interesing Facts on Cactus Wood
A study conducted by Art Gibson shows a direct correlation between the types of fiber and size of water conduction and storage vessels found in cactus wood and the growth habit of cactus species. The larger the cacti, the longer and wider the water vessels and fibers. This means that the largest cactus plants possess the strongest wood and the capacity to store the most amount of water, an obvious evolutionary trait that helps large cacti survive in harsh conditions. According to a United States Department of Agriculture report, "Cross Border Waters," the high demand for cactus wood amongst contractors and carpenters in New Mexico and Arizona precipitates cactus wood smuggling from Mexico to the United States. While plenty of cactus wood enters the country legally, a good deal more comes in illicitly and unbeknownst to Uncle Sam.