Can You Drink Water from a Cactus? Understanding the Dangers

by | Oct 6, 2020 | Purifying Water

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Deserts can be both beautiful and unforgiving. Between the barren landscapes and sweltering heat, you won’t come across many water sources or plants for survival. However, there is one popular plant that thrives in the desert environment, the cactus. Which begs the question, if you ever find yourself in a survival situation, can you drink water from a cactus?

Can You Drink Water from a Cactus?

Contrary to what movies and survival shows may have told you, drinking cactus water isn’t safe. The liquid that cacti produce is extremely acidic, and can cause severe illness. While a lot of plans do contain acids, they don’t contain as much as a cactus.

That’s mainly attributed to something known as crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM photosynthesis). CAM photosynthesis is the common carbon fixation pathway that is used by plants, such as cactus and other succulents, to help them survive arid conditions.

Due to the modified CAM photosynthesis, cactus open their stomata (pores) at night to avoid the heat. This helps them retain more water throughout the day. Without sunlight, carbon dioxide is stored as an organic acid, principally malic acid.

While malic acid is common in many plants, cacti contain significantly more. Additionally, a cactus may contain oxalic acid, which is harmful for people to consume. 

Dangers and Safety Concerns

If you’re still wondering if you can drink water from a cactus, the answer is no. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for (which we’ll touch on in a bit), drinking cactus water exposes you to some serious risks and dangers.

To start, the acids and potential alkaloids found in cacti can make you extremely sick. Consuming cactus water may cause:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Temporary paralysis

As you can imagine, none of the above side effects are ideal for any survival situation. Which is only amplified by the already hot and dry conditions. Vomiting and diarrhea will only prove to dehydrate you faster, putting you in further danger.

Emergency Situations

What if you’re in an emergency situation, is drinking water from a cactus better than going without any liquid? For most people, cactus water will only make matters worse. However, if you’re familiar with cactus types, and are able to identify certain species, you can use them to help hydrate.

Cactus Fruit

Consuming cactus can be harmful. Cactus fruit, on the other hand, are completely harmless. In fact, eating cactus fruit can provide you with a number of benefits and nutrients. More importantly, these fruits can help provide some hydration that can help you when you’re in a pinch.

You also don’t need to be an expert when it comes to identifying species. There are about 2,000 species of cactus in the world, and none produce fruit that is toxic for people. 

Using Cacti to Clean Drinking Water

There’s some interesting research being done in which the cactus is used to help purify contaminated water. Specifically, water that is contaminated with heavy metals or bacteria. When you extract the gooey insides of the cactus, it can be used to separate the water. 

Final Thoughts on Cactus Water

So, can you drink water from a cactus? Regardless of the myths you’ve heard, you shouldn’t drink cactus water in survival situations. As tempting as any liquid may be, cactus water can have the adverse effects. Leaving you dehydrated and sick, in essence, worse than you were before.

Brian Segal

As an outdoor enthusiast, I was drawn to bushcraft at a young age. I constantly find myself trying to learn and improve on my survival skills, and enjoy writing about everything I discover to help pass along to others.

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