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All Deserts Have Cacti

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Desert Ruins: Where the architecture of Giza meets the vegetation of the Sonoran.

The hero and his comic-relief sidekick are trudging across the burning sands, looking for water or shelter, and they walk past a towering saguaro cactus. The problem is, they're marching through the deserts of Arabia...

In fiction, most deserts have cacti, usually the classic two-armed saguaro, though barrel and beavertail cacti are popular too, while prickly pears also show up on a fairly regular basis. But the Sahara - with the exception of its oases, where a variety of trees can grow - only has hardy grasses, bushes, shrubs, sand dunes and bare rock — cacti are only native to the Americas. And despite its common depiction as the ubiquitous cactus, the saguaro only grows in the Sonoran Desert, which covers mostly parts of western Sonora in Northern Mexico, Southern Arizona in the US, and a tiny bit of southern California. It does not include any part of Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Chihuahua (which is actually only desertic near the US border), Baja California (which is an entirely different ecosystem), northern or central California, or even Northern Arizona or eastern Sonora (which is actually a subtropical land).

The entire family of Cactaceae is exclusive to the Americas in its native range — yes, even in high-altitude and colder areas.note  You'll only see them elsewhere if they've been introduced by humans to the area, or purposely cultivated for their fruit or decoration (usually, the latter leads to the former; feral prickly pears descended from ones raised for fruit are a pretty common sight in the semi-deserts of southern Europe and the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East).

This particular portrayal runs into some ambiguity when dealing with entirely Constructed Worlds — more to the point, ones in which the Americas or any other organism's real-life native range don't actually exist. In these cases, the presence of cacti in any or all deserts is not really any more or less unrealistic than the presence of any real plants and animals anywhere. Note, however, that such cases may still qualify if cacti are present in areas clearly themed around or based on real-life areas where cacti don't grow.

If you want to establish that you're in a hot desert, there's no better way than to throw in a cactus. Increasingly, this trope is used to justify a Intoxication Ensues or a Mushroom Samba; while many have heard of Peyote, few realize that it is a cactus — at least until someone on television is trapped in the desert, dying of thirst, and remembers that cacti are full of water... And Knowing Is Half the Battle.

An alternative stereotype is that all deserts are nothing but hot, sandy wastelands — aside from the cacti — completely disregarding the fact that all deserts except Antarctica have vibrant ecosystems with their own unique animal and plant life. While cacti are the most well-known, you also have Aloes, for example, which are native to Southern Africa and parts of Arabia and Agaves which were native to Mexico but may now be found across the world. The bit about sand is also exaggerated, as many deserts, including where cacti grow native, are rocky rather than sandy — a sandy dune desert is specifically an erg, the largest one in the world being Rub al-Khali (mostly in Saudi Arabia), which also happens to have quite a bit of human development on account of being one of the most oil-rich places in the world. Additionally, a desert isn't always hot — it's less about heat and more about annual precipitation, as evidenced by the existence of cold deserts.note  But even then, due to a lack of vegetation and cloud cover, warm desert landscapes have a tendency to wildly fluctuate in temperature, meaning that someone traveling through could potentially have to worry about heatstroke and hypothermia within the same 24-hour period.

If your game has a Shifting Sand Land level, expect to see cacti, often as spiky obstacles that damage you when you collide with them. Makes you wonder just how sharp these needles are for them to kill someone who bumps into them a few times. These are also some of the only notable features you can expect to see in a Sea of Sand.

Probably a result of either Artistic License – Botany, Artistic License – Geography or California Doubling due to lacking the budget to film on location elsewhere.

A subtrope of Misplaced Vegetation.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In the Cowboy Bebop episode "Mushroom Samba", the crew runs out of fuel and crash-lands on Io, a moon of Jupiter. The series often pays homage to its roots, and this part of Io just so happens to have been terraformed into a desert typical of the American southwest, complete with cacti.
  • Desert Punk: Averted: the series is set in an After the End Kanto region of Japan which has been turned into a desert, and thus has no cacti.
  • In Digimon Adventure, Mimi's crest is found inside the flower topping a gigantic cactus in the middle of a desert. How gigantic is this cactus? It's as tall as a cruise liner is long. In this case, it's justified due to being in the digital world.
  • Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu uses the "all deserts are sandy wastelands" variation to portray Nevada, complete with a raging sandstorm.
  • One Piece: A brief gag during the Arabasta arc has Luffy drink from a cactus, despite the kingdom being more Arabic than American, with near-identical results to the Avatar: The Last Airbender example. Luckily, Chopper, the team doctor, happened to have a needle full of tranquilizer on him...

    Comic Books 
  • Bamse: In one comic, Bamse digs next to a cactus, hoping to find water. He instead finds oil, which is spotted by bedouins, who then come to Bamse's aid.
  • In ElfQuest, cacti provide the Wolfriders with an emergency water supply during their desperate desert journey. Possibly justified because it takes place on an Earthlike planet with almost-identical flora and fauna. Realistically, they pass through both sandy dunes and rocky flats during their journey, and the cacti only grow in the latter.
  • Tintin averts this, placing the characters in Arabian Deserts numerous times with no cacti.

    Comic Strips 
  • Crock features cacti prominently in the Sahara.
  • In Peanuts, Snoopy's brother Spike is always portrayed sitting under a two-armed saguaro cactus. He actually has a house inside a hollowed-out cactus. Although he does live in the American Southwest, his home in Needles, CA, is too far north for saguaros.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animation 
  • The Jungle Book: As noted in its song, the cacti are specifically prickly pears (genus Opuntia). Although native to the Americas, they have been spread around the world and are now a major invasive species in many places (especially Australia and parts of Africa). They're not at all common in India, but can certainly be found there.
  • Madagascar features cacti growing in jungles. While the only cactus native to the Old World, the epiphytic mistletoe cactus, is found in rainforests of Africa and Madagascar, having been introduced there via migratory birds, the stereotypical pricey ground plants in the movie look nothing like it.
  • In Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: The Tiger Prowess, Lord Japper creates an amusement park right where Goat Village is. The amusement park uses up energy from the ground, causing the surrounding area to dry up and become a desert... which somehow has cacti growing everywhere despite the series taking place in China which doesn't have cacti.
  • Rango, which the film states takes place in the Mojave Desert, has plenty of cacti in the desert around the town of Dirt. While there are in fact plenty of species of cacti that grow natively, the lovingly and accurately rendered saguaro does not.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure: The scene where Bill and Ted visit 19th-century New Mexico prominently features a saguaro in its opening shot. The movie was filmed in the Sonoran Desert, so perhaps this is mostly as example of Arizona Doubling, but even still, they could have built the set away from the saguaro.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: The film version pays tribute to Ralph Steadman's original art — which depicted saguaro cacti on the road between Barstow and Las Vegas — by inserting the occasional black cardboard cutout of a saguaro in the background of some of the driving scenes.
  • More a case of 'All Western Locales Have Cacti' in Grim Prairie Tales as there are saguaro cacti in the prairie where Morrison and Deeds are camped. Especially strange as Deeds is supposedly travelling from Seattle to Jacksonville, so his route should not take him anywhere near a saguaro cactus.
  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: Justified, thematically if not in terms of setting. Although there are saguaro cacti in the "One More Angel" scene, which is set in Canaan, the song itself has a country-western tone.
  • The King of Kings: Jesus Christ preaches in the Holy Land while standing next to a beavertail cactus.
  • King of Kings: Jesus Christ, while fasting in the wilderness, breaks open a beavertail cactus leaf and drinks the water inside.
  • Posse (1975) is supposedly set in Texas yet the train passes many saguaro cacti which do not grow in Texas.
  • In Risen, prickly pears are seen growing all around Pilate's mansion. Prickly pears DO grow in the Middle East, and their fruit is highly favored, but they were introduced from the Americas, so they would not have been present in the first century AD.
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: Invoked. One of the indications of the instability of the Genesis planet is patchwork ecosystems in close proximity; a desert region next door to a lush jungle is visually signified not by expanses of sand but rocky terrain and tall cacti, which look eerily beautiful when snowed upon.

  • Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?: The narrator meets an old man in the Desert of Drize, who is sitting atop a cactus. This is a rather ambiguous example, however, given the fanciful and unreal nature of Dr. Seuss' settings.
  • Dune: Justified. Cacti are introduced to the desert planet Arrakis as part of a terraforming effort, although the planet is so arid that initially they can only survive in carefully guarded parts of the mountains (away from the worms) with dew collectors providing them with water.
  • Red Nails: Conan the Cimmerian and Valeria travel across a "cactus-dotted plain" and spend the night in a ring of cacti for protection while adventuring in prehistoric Africa.
  • In Sourcery, okrah, the Gargle Blaster of certain Great Nef desert tribesmen, is made from cactus sap and scorpion venom. Everything else about the Great Nef is a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of the Sahara, but the Discworld lacks a counterpart to American desertsnote , so the cacti have to go somewhere.
  • While The Story of Ferdinand is set in the rather arid regions of Southern Spain, we still see prickly pear cacti in the background.
  • Temple of Terror have the hero crossing the Desert of Skulls, which naturally has various cacti on it. While suffering a heatstroke, he passes a suspiciously huge and bulging cactus plant, which he slices up with his sword - lo and behold, there's water inside the plant.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus: Used intentionally in "Scott of the Sahara" with cardboard saguaro cacti in the Sahara Desert as produced by a bad movie-maker.
  • On Star Trek: Enterprise, one planet-of-the-week is a desert planet with its own cacti for making wine.


    Pro Wrestling 
  • One of Big Japan Pro Wrestling's signature Gimmick Matches, The Scorpion Death Match, replaces the barbed wire used in the Piranha Death Match with cacti, for a more desert feel. This ignores that deserts in Japan don't have cacti.

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • Adventure Island games after the first one feature desert areas. Deserts have both Egyptian-style pyramids and saguaro cacti.
  • Both Age of Empires I and Age of Empires II have Arabian, Gobi, and Sahara deserts full of cacti.
  • Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy: The Northern Lands, contrary to the usual frigid tundra, are instead a rocky desert highly reminiscent of the Southwestern United States, cacti and all.
  • Banjo-Kazooie: Gobi's Valley includes these, despite being ancient Egyptian-themed and named after (a camel named after) a desert in Asia.
  • Blood West, a Weird West-style game set in a Western desert have plenty of cacti of assorted sizes as scenery filler.
  • Borderlands 2:
    • The game has an unusual variation: Stinging Cacti, which are a bit like if a geneticist spliced electric eel genes into a cactus plant. The catch is they only appear in the Arctic sections of the game... which are deserts.
    • The regular variety of cacti (called 'Stactus plants' in-game) appear in the regular sand-and-heat deserts of Pandora.
  • Brave Hero Yuusha: The desert map has cacti and the Racket Cactus monsters.
  • Bug Fables: The Lost Sands desert is dotted with round cacti, and there is a ravine around the middle filled with it. While the greater location of Bug Fables is ambiguous, the Lost Sands having cacti is still unusual in that it is actually a backyard sandbox in a Mouse World, and cacti are not seen outside of this sandbox.
  • Carnivores Triassic: Most maps contain one variation or another of prickly pear and occasionally saguaro, sometimes in surreal color schemes, though they're not very common. Justified in the game taking place on an alien planet, not on prehistoric Earth.
  • Clonk: Cacti are the go-to decoration for any and all deserts.
  • In Dwarf Fortress, the default data files specify that all desert biomes contain saguaros. However, the game does recognize three different types of deserts (sand deserts, badlands, and rocky wastelands), so the game's data files can be modified to make the situation slightly more realistic.
  • In Earth and Sky, even the alien deserts have cacti.
  • In The Elder Scrolls, Hammerfell (as seen in Daggerfall), despite it being otherwise closer to a North African desert, has cacti. Averted in places which are desert-like (the Ashlands of Vvardenfell in Morrowind, for instance,) but don't fit the traditional idea most people have of deserts.
  • Europa Universalis: The "desert" graphics will always feature cacti, even if it's a Persian desert.
  • Despite Ever Oasis being set in a place that takes a lot more from Egypt than it does from America, cacti are a staple crop in the game, and can be easily cut up for materials.
  • Far Cry 2 falls prey to this trope, having big Saguaros... in the middle of Africa.
  • Final Fantasy:
    • Final Fantasy XII plays with this. The Dalmasca Westersand has large round cacti all over the place while the Estersand lacks cacti altogether. On the other hand, both deserts are home to the game's Cactuar-equivalent, the cactoids.
    • Final Fantasy XIV averts this as of the Stormblood expansion. There are two desert areas in Eorzea the player is allowed to explore, Thanalan and Gyr Abania, but only the former has cacti, or Cactuars. Amh Araeng from Shadowbringers also has them, but it's an Alternate Universe counterpart to Thanalan, so it makes sense.
  • Golden Sun, despite being set in a fantasy world, has two deserts with cacti in the battle scenery. The America-equivalent continents don't get explored until Golden Sun: The Lost Age, and the deserts on those use battle scenery that doesn't have cacti.
  • Guild Wars 2 introduces cacti in a very odd manner. Prickly pear cacti appear in the Maguuma Wastes as a harvestable plant. Choya, sentient plant creatures based on cacti, also appear... in Elona, where there are no regular cacti plants.
  • Half-Life has a few saguaro cacti in the outdoor areas... despite being located in New Mexico. While New Mexico has cacti, it doesn't have saguaros.
  • Halo:
    • Averted in Halo 3; an entire mission (one of the game's longest in fact) is set in a desert and features not one cactus. That said, it's an alien desert.
    • Also averted in Halo 4, where Requiem's deserts are shown to be cactus-less, probably because Requiem is an artificial world built by ancient aliens.
  • In Heroes of Might and Magic I and II, both the Desert and Wasteland terrains (the two terrains closest to the traditional idea most people have of deserts) have cacti as associated decoration/movement blockers, with most maps featuring either or both terrains making use of it. III, which is set on a different continent, removed the Wasteland terrain and merged the Desert terrain with the Beach terrain into a single Sand terrain... which as a result has both cacti and palm trees, and maps that use Sand for more than just beaches tend to make use of cacti.
  • In Incredible Dracula 2: The Last Call the desert portion of the level map contains a pyramid, a sphinx, palm trees — and cacti.
  • Infinite Undiscovery features a pair of Barrel Cactus creatures with the distinctly Mexican names "Amigo" and "Tequilo". Man-sized walking Barrel Cactus. That can shoot needles in multiple directions simultaneously, spew spores when struck by attacks that might paralyze/poison you, and bowl you over with a rolling attack. The former is played straighter by being found in the desert region of the game, while the latter is peculiar by being found in a tropical jungle setting. Which works in its favor, since its coloring gives it a bit of camouflage against the planty surroundings.
  • The desert/beach zone of the island features plenty of cacti, and running into one instantly takes off 25 HP. There's even a golden chest that's surrounded by four of them, making it difficult to retrieve its contents without getting hurt, or at least wasting time on breaking one of the cacti with weapons.
  • The Legend of Zelda:
  • MadMaze: Even though takes place in the general area of the Middle East and Northern Africa, the second level still features plenty of cacti.
  • Super Mario Bros.:
    • The series features Pokey, a sentient xerophyte creature that consists of a pile of spherical cactus formations, with the top sphere serving as a head; and with rare exceptions, they're found exclusively in desert levels. Their debut in the series was in the desert levels of Super Mario Bros. 2, though their ur-appearance was in the game's precursor Doki Doki Panic, a game with an Arabian theme (cacti do not exist natively in the Real Life deserts of the Middle East, though some specimens have been imported). For a while, the trope was averted in the following games (Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario Land have desert levels but no Pokeys, viceversa for Super Mario World, and neither exist in Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins), until Super Mario 64 made it a near-omnipresent tradition.
    • Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga features the Spiky Snifits who look like saguaro cacti. You find them in the desert Teehee Valley.
  • Mega Man Zero: The opening stage of Zero 2, a desert, had tall mechanical saguaro cacti that fired spikes and round barrel cacti that rolled about and shot bombs. In Zero 3, Glacier le Cactank is an aversion. If you haven't guessed it yet by his name, he's An Ice Person. His territory is a snowy region.
  • Miitopia: The Neksdor Kingdom is a desert littered with Egyptian architecture with an Arabian-like backstory. Neither Egypt nor the Middle East naturally have cacti in their deserts and yet the Neksdor Kingdom is filled with them.
  • Minecraft: Cacti have a small chance of spawning anywhere on sand, and in desert biomes they are everywhere.
  • Minit: The flat, endless sand of the desert is littered with cacti.
  • Monster Racers: All of the deserts have cacti, even if they're in India. All of them have oases as well.
  • In Rimworld, Saguaro cacti are present in all desert biomes along with agave bushes. Justified in this case as the planet you're on is the product of terraforming, so they've likely been deliberately introduced to all arid regions so that settlers would have a source of lumber and edible fruit even in the harshest environments.
  • RollerCoaster Tycoon had Saguaro cacti available in the scenery window no matter where you go, allowing you to place them in the Arctic if you so choose. But more to the point, an Egypt-themed premade scenario also had some sitting around. Possibly justified in that it's quite literally The Theme Park Version, and a cactus will grow just as well in a fake Egypt as a fake Wild West. Nobody really ever said they were real, live cacti either.
  • In RuneScape, cacti abound in the very Arabian/Egyptian-themed desert. Cutting them and drinking their water is kinda useful for not dying from the heat, so they could be given a pass.
  • Shantae: Cacti are everywhere in the deserts, and you'll take damage if you touch them.
  • Spyro the Dragon (1998): There were cacti all over the desert levels. Some of them would even shake themselves to get the soot off if you used your flame attack on them. Rather impressively, though, the cacti only show up in levels with an "American" theme within the trilogy. Dry Canyon and Cliff Town are both based on areas ("Colorado" and "Mexico") which might be expected to have cacti, and Dino Mines is the Old West with dinosaurs (and cacti). Skeletos Badlands has cacti as well, but no clear effective location. The two desert levels which do have a clear non-American location (Scorch and Desert Ruins) are cacti-free.
  • Starbound has cacti in the desert, but this is perhaps justified because the game takes place IN SPACE!
  • Stardew Valley: Calico Desert not only has cacti (complete with Cactus Fruit you can harvest and sell back in town), but in the same place as palm trees.
  • Stick Ranger: Even though the sand area is clearly Egyptian, with a pyramid and an oasis in its middle, cacti enemies can still be found there.
  • In Super Tux Kart, some deserts have cacti. Coyote Canyon is an add-on racetrack in a rocky desert with saguaro cacti. Coyote Canyon resembles the Grand Canyon in Arizona, though saguaro is not among the cacti at the Grand Canyon. Shifting Sands has no cacti, because it resembles Egypt with pyramids.
  • Tales of Vesperia features a desert where you must deflate cacti with your sorcerer's ring to restock your water supply periodically. Also cactus monsters live in it.
  • In Team Buddies, you are sure to find cacti (and possibly pyramids) in all the desert levels.
  • The "Blazing Sands" level skin in Temple Run 2 automatically adds cacti to the background.
  • In Terranigma, the Gobi desert (which is located in Asia, by the way) is covered in cacti.
  • In Terraria, all desert biomes (created when there's a large enough concentration of sand) automatically grow cacti.
  • Tiny and Big: Cacti appear in the deserts, although since the ultimate location is left unknown, it may have been appropriate.
  • In The Twisted Tales of Spike McFang, Kalala Desert, as well as the preceding area, Rat Mountain, doesn't just have saguaro cactuses — it has maraca-wielding Dancing Cactuses!
  • Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception averts this, with the desert in question being in the Middle East. Sadly for Drake, there isn't any other life either.
  • Vine Realms despite the Lupin Desert appearing to be based loosely on Egypt (with a pyramid, sphinxes, and generic Middle East architecture), there are also saguaro cacti in the dunes.
  • In Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise, most of the Dessert Desert's accompanying soundtrack and native piñatas (as well as their homes) have clear Old World inspiration, but there are also cacti. Justified because it's set on a fictional island.
  • In Westward, you'll even find cacti in the heavily forested areas.
  • World of Warcraft: The only desert regions in the game with cacti are Durotar and Thistleshrub Valley, the latter being a subzone of Tanaris. Cacti are completely missing in the two Egypt-themed zones Silithus and Uldum, and are also not found in the greater part of Tanaris.
  • In The Wolf and the Waves, cacti are the signature plant in the island's desert. One of the cacti is crimson, and an ingredient the player character needs for his cure.
  • X-COM:
    • No matter where you deploy for UFO recovery in the world, as long as you touch down in desert, you will see cacti and pyramids when you disembark from the Skyranger.
    • XCOM 2: If there's a desert climate mission, it will have cacti, even if the mission is set in Sahara.
  • ZAR: The arid alien planets will regularly feature cacti.


  • The "Pirates' Treasures" version of Google Maps use cactus to indicate deserts — even Arabian Desert and Gobi Desert.

    Western Animation 
  • In American Dad!, the episode Delorean Story shows Stan driving his son on the way to Albuquerque, with nothing but sand and saguaro cacti surrounding the road. In reality, they would have seen a few forests along the way considering at least 5 climate zones exist around Albuquerque.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a mythological Asian-esque land. In episode "The Desert", Sokka finds and drinks from a cactus which gets him high on cactus juice. The cactus itself is the only one they ever see among the miles and miles of sand dunes that make up the rest of the desert.
  • Kim Possible: An episode set in the Mojave Desert inevitably includes saguaros as part of its landscape. In one case, the keycard lock for accessing an Elaborate Underground Base is hidden in a fake cactus.
  • Ready Jet Go!: In "Every Day Is Earth Day", the gang flies around Earth to find out what makes it special, and Sean mentions that deserts have cacti in them.
  • Wild Kratts: In "Koala Balloon", the brothers cut up a prickly pear cactus to hydrate the equally out-of-place young koala they find lost in the Outback desert. Excusable in that prickly pear is an invasive species in Australia, although the Kratts don't comment on this.

    Real Life 
  • In deserts and other arid regions of southern Africa there are plants of the genus Euphorbia, in the family Euphorbiaceae, that look suspiciously similar to cacti but are not related to cacti at all. They are more closely related to poinsettias than cacti. The two families independently evolved multiple similar forms to adapt to similar niches (barrel-shaped forms, saguaro-shaped forms, ocotillo-shaped forms, etc.) The difference isn't trifling; euphorbia sap is irritating and mildly toxic, so you can't use them for food or water in the desert the way you might rely on most cacti.
  • Rhipsalis baccifera is a cactus that grows in Africa and Sri Lanka. How it managed to get there while all other cacti are found in the Americas is unknown. As it can also be found in the Americas, it's possible that its seeds were spread across oceans by birds, or that its presence in Africa is actually that of an introduced species that was carried by European trade ships.
  • Human activity has spread cacti to Hawaii, Australia, and the Mediterranean, giving filmmakers more leeway when depicting desert environments in North Africa or the Outback. Especially the Outback, where introduced cactus species are considered a weed.
  • The inversion of this trope is also a minor trope, i.e. the notion that cacti grow only in deserts. But the Andes Mountains are one of the three main epicenters of cactus diversity, and there are whole tribes of climbing or epiphytic cacti that grow in trees in the coastal woodlands of Brazil, Bolivia, and Central America.