How do cactus plants survive in the desert?

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Cactus (as most desert plants) plants survive in near desert conditions, on almost no water.

They manage this because of several adaptations to their stems and leaves that they have developed over their long evolution. Cacti look swollen because they have adapted their stems and leaves to store as much water as possible and to lose as little water as possible by evaporation. They also have a very thick and waxy cuticle which cuts down water loss to the absolute minimum.

Their leaves are reduced to spines, again to retain more water (flat leaves lose loads of water by evaporation).

The whole of the stem is green and contains photosynthetic cells, so the plant does not need broad leaves to pick up light. There is plenty of light around anyway, so the plant can photosynthesize very well for most of the day.
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