Can You Drink Water From a Cactus? The Myths and Facts

can you drink cactus water
Image Credit: Dulcey Lima

There can’t be too many situations where you need to squeeze a cactus and drink from it to quench your thirst. However, thanks to movie survival logic, many folks wonder if you can drink water from a cactus.

Contrary to what movies and survival shows say, drinking water from a cactus is not safe. Water from a cactus is highly acidic and will cause severe diarrhea and vomiting, causing you to become more dehydrated.

For today’s post, we’re busting some myths and revealing the truth about drinking water from a cactus.

Can You Drink Cactus Water?

No, cactus water is not a safe replacement for potable water. The water found in the cactus pulp is extremely acidic and contains toxic alkaloids.

Although many plants also contain acids, they pale in comparison to the cacti’s acid levels. This is mainly due to the phenomenon called crassulacean acid metabolism or CAM photosynthesis. Occurring in plants in arid regions (i.e., cactus), CAM photosynthesis is a method of carbon fixation adopted by plants in dry conditions.

Cactuses use modified CAM photosynthesis which helps them retain water during the day. At night without sunlight, carbon dioxide is stored as malic acid. Although malic acid is generally considered safe, the high-concentrated levels in cactuses may cause side effects like diarrhea and nausea.

Furthermore, cactuses contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans. In difficult emergencies, some types of cactus can offer a small amount of hydration (more on this later).

Drinking Cactus Water: Dangers and Safety Concerns

As it turns out, cactuses aren’t the spike-covered source for on-demand water pop culture made them out to be. On top of that, drinking water from a cactus presents some serious risks and dangers.

The potential side effects of drinking cactus water are:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Temporary paralysis

As you can see, these side effects in an emergency will only make the situation direr. Aside from continuous sweating due to the already hot and dry conditions, diarrhea and vomiting will cause you to lose more body fluids and speed up dehydration.

Which Cactus Type is Safe to Drink From?

In general, no one should attempt drinking water from a cactus. However, there are a few notable exceptions to the rule.

From over 2,000 species of cactus, only the fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni) and the prickly pear (Opuntia) are safe to drink from and consume but only in small quantities. Both cactus types have less-concentrated levels of toxins and harmful chemicals.

Fishhook Barrel Cactus

Also called “compass barrel,” the fishhook barrel cactus is commonly found in south-central Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. The fishhook barrel is one of the primary perpetrators of the myth that you can drink water from a cactus – just cut it open, and water comes pouring out.

True enough, one of the least problematic of the cacti family is the fishhook barrel, thanks to its lower concentration of toxic alkaloids. Nevertheless, there’s always the risk side of effects associated with drinking cactus water. You can drink the water from a fishhook barrel in absolute emergencies, but only in small quantities.

Prickly Pear Cactus

Found throughout the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, the prickly pear is a type of cactus that’s actually safe for human consumption. Several parts of the plant, including the pads (also called nopales), flowers, and fruit, are edible.

While prickly pear pads still contain traces of the aforementioned toxic elements, the plant’s smaller and younger external parts contain less oxalic acid. The pads can be eaten raw, and cooking further breaks down the acids, reducing the risk of indigestion.

The prickly pear fruit, also called tuna, is safe and edible and tastes like a cross between a watermelon and bubble gum. One of the most common ways to prepare the fruit is to carefully burn it off using a lighter, stovetop, or candle. This will burn off the thorns or “glochids” so you can safely peel them.

Prickly pears may not be enough to quench your thirst, but it’s a good source of emergency food.

What About Commercial Cactus Water?

Cactus water has hit the natural beverage market and marketed by fitness experts and athletes in recent years. Yes, commercial cactus water is safe to drink and has been processed to ensure it’s safe for human consumption.

Typically, cactus water drinks are made from prickly pear fruit, explaining why they’re pink in color. Cactus water offers a wide range of health benefits such as Vitamin C source, antioxidants, immunity boost, and skin health.

Outside your grocery store and supplement shop, it bears repeating that you shouldn’t drink water from a cactus. Even if some cacti are safe to drink and consume, you have to be an expert in identifying them and need special tools to prepare them—better stick to planning and carrying enough water with you.

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