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The term cereus is used to describe cacti with very elongated bodies, including columnar growth cacti and epiphytic cacti. The name is from the Latin cēreus, ‘wax taper’ (slender candle), a metaphor for the stiff, upright form of the columnar species. Some cereus cacti were known as torch cactus or torch-thistle, supposedly due to their use as torches by Native Americans in the past.
The genus Cereus was first genus for such cacti and one of the oldest cactus genera. Its circumscription varies depending on the authority.
According to Cactiguide the word cereus was commonly and freely used to describe any tree-like cacti. Even in the Cactus and Succulent society, the word cereus was commonly used to describe most tall green columnar cacti. Newer members would ask the experienced ones, What type of cereus is that? or Can I have a cutting of that cereus in your front yard? This generic use of the word cereus is in this sense misleading and the word ceroid or ceriform should be used instead.
The name cereus originates in a book by Tabernaemontanus published in 1625 and refers to the candle-like form of species Cereus hexagonus. Regularly having been described by Philip Miller in 1754, and included all known cacti with very elongated bodies.
Ludwig Pfeiffer in 1838 divided Cephalocereus (type Cephalocereus senilis), the name is derived from the Greek cephale, head, thus headed cereus, referring to the hairy pseudocephalium. Charles Lemaire described Pilocereus in 1839, now is renamed as Pilosocereus. The name Pilocereus is derived from the Greek pilos, felted, hairy, thus hairy cereus, similar to the Latin pilosus, from which the name Pilosocereus was derived. Genus Echinocereus (type Echinocereus viridiflorus) was described in 1848 by George Engelmann, the name is derived from the Greek echinos, hedgehog or sea urchin. Britton & Rose (1919-1923) and Alwin Berger (1929) continued to divide Cereus into many genera.
In 1984 a new approach to cactus classification was begun. The International Organization for Succulent Plant Study (IOS) found a working group called the International Cactaceae Systematics Group. The group has involved specialists in morphology and anatomy and experts in botanical research as electron microscopy, pollen studies, chromosomes, chemistry, and DNA analysis. Specialists in various groups of cacti have been included, or their comments solicited. The results was presented by Anderson 2001.
According International Cactaceae Systematics Group, published by Anderson 2001.
Plants shrubby or treelike. Stems columnar, segmented, ribbed and winglike, to 8 m high. Areoles large,spines straight, stiff, and whitish. Flowers tubular, white, 11 cm long. Fruits fleshy. Distribution: the Andes of northern Peru. Only one species Calymmanthium substerile.
Climbing or epiphytic shrubs. Roots adventitious. Stems thin, spination undistinguished. Flowers often nocturnal, sometime very large up to 30 cm diameter. Distribution: tropical forests of Central America.
Plants treelike or shrubby, sometimes climbing. Small Arrojadoa or large plants, Cereus up to 15 m high. Stems unsegmented. Terminal or lateral cephalia usually present. Distribution: mostly in eastern South America.
Plants treelike to shrubby, very small (Pygmaeocereus 5 – 10 cm), to large, Echinopsis (synonym Trichocereus) up to 10 m high. Stems normally unsegmented, reproductive areas undifferentiated or differentiated as lateral or terminal cephalia. Flowers usually small, sometime quite large, nocturnal or diurnal, regular or bilaterally symmetrical. Fruits fleshy, berrylike. Distribution: South America, south of the equator.
Plants mostly solitary, Flowers arising from the woolly apices. Distribution: southern part of South America, also driest part of Atacama desert (Eulychnia).
Plants large, treelike or shrubby. Stems segmented or unsegmented, columnar, ribbed, usually heavily spined. Cephalia not present. Distribution: Andean area of South America and the Galapagos Islands.
Plants large, treelike or shrubby. Stems unsegmented, columnar, ribbed. Reproductive areas undifferentiated or differentiated into apical or lateral cephalia. Distribution: mainly in Mexico and the southwestern United States but also in the Caribbean, Central America, Columbia, Venezuela.
Smallest: Pygmaeocereus, Echinopsis chamaecereus (synonymum Chamaecereus silvestrii), Echinopsis (Seti-Echinopsis) mirabilis, small species of Echinocereus: E. knippelianus, E. laui, E. ledingii, E. pulchellus, E. viridiflorus.
Highest: Carnegia gigantea (18 –20 m, max. 24 m), Neobuxbaumia, Neoraimondia, Pachycereus (synonymum Mitrocereus) (12 – 18 m).
Longest stem: epiphytic Hylocereus undatus (90 m).
Edible fruits: Carnegia, Myrtillocactus geometrizans, Pachycereus pringlei, Pachycereus schottii, Echinocereus: E. fendleri, E. engelmannii and other species, Corryocactus pulquiensis, Selenicereus setaceus, Peniocereus serpentinus, Cereus repandus „cadushi“, Stenocereus: S. fricii, S. griseus, S. queretaroensis, and S. stellatus also cultivated, S. pruinosus and S. thurberi wild.
Pitahaya: red pitahaya Hylocereus undatus, yellow pitahaya H. triangularis. Widely cultivated.
Peniocereus greggii develops a large subterranean root that may be baked, peeled, and eaten.
Cactus fences: Pachycereus marginatus, Cereus repandus.
Firewood: Cereus repandus, Eulychnia sp.
Fishhooks: Neoraimondia arequipensis.
Fishing: Senocereus gummosus contains several toxic triterpenes. Indigenous people in northern Mexico crush the stems of the plant and throw the pieces into the water, stupefying the fish, which are then scooped out of the water by hand.
Hairbrushes: Part of fruits Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum.
Neoraimondia arequipensis is a Peruvian cereus reported to be used as an ingredient in the psychoactive drink called cimora, drunk at various ceremonies and containing material of the San Pedro cactus as well.