Areal view of dry forest landscape with cacti. Photo from: Christian König, SHAPE/DCNAThere are three cacti species that dominate the landscape of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao: Stenocereus griseus, Cereus repandus and Pilosocereus lanuginosus. Most people group them under the term “columnar cacti” as they are hard to tell apart at first glance. However these magnificent cacti species, which can grow up to 10 m (~32.8 ft) tall, deserve a closer look. Here are a few tips to help you identify each one of them: Stenocereus griseus, known locally as Yatu, grows straight up and branches out close to the ground; its thorns make up neat rows of rosettes. Cereus repandus, known locally as Kadushi, is the largest of the three cacti species and looks more like a tree as it branches out further from the ground; its thorns form dense rows that stick out in all directions. Pilosocereus lanuginosus, known locally as Kadushi di Pushi, has long white hairy spines and yellow prickles on the top of its branches.

The cacti have a very important ecological role: their fruits and flowers, which bloom only at night, provide critical food resources for a variety of the islands’ bats, birds and reptiles. Bonaire’s endangered Yellow-shouldered Amazon Parrot is especially dependent on the Kadushi’s red-purple fruit during periods of drought. The nectar-eating bats of the ABC islands, including the endangered Southern Long-nosed Bat, have a very special relationship with the cacti: they need them for food (the flowers of the cacti only boom at night, which suits the bats perfectly), and in turn, the cacti need the bats to pollinate their flowers.

The Yatu and Kadushi are also very much a part of the islands’ history and culture, as locals, past and present, have found many uses for them. The flesh of Kadushi is used to make medicine, shampoo and a delicious soup usually eaten with fish or salted meat. The fruit of the Yatu has traditionally been used to make jam, and the cactus also had a number of medicinal uses: Yatu extract was used as a cure for kidney stones, and the cacti’s dried branches were roasted and used to cure upset stomachs.

Most fences on Bonaire are made from Yatu stems, which re-root easily and are covered in enough thorns to keep out goats… and uninvited guests. Stenocereus griseus, Cereus repandus and Pilosocereus lanuginosus are all listed in Appendix II of CITES, meaning that their trade is strictly regulated.