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Instant Desert? Just Add Cactus.

You've Seen It a Million Times. The hero and his comic-relief Sidekick are trudging across the burning sands, looking for water or shelter or for just any way at all out of the hot burning sun, and they walk right past a towering saguaro cactus. The problem is, they're marching through the deserts of Arabia...

In fiction, all deserts have cacti. And usually not just any cacti, but the classic two-armed saguaro (though barrel- and beavertail cacti are also popular). Never mind that cacti are only native to the New World. The Sahara only has bushes, dunes and bare rock. The saguaro, for example, is found exclusively in southern Arizona, northwest Mexico, and a tiny bit of California. For that matter, the entire family of Cactaceae is exclusive to the Americas in its native range - yes, even in high-altitude and colder areas. Of course, the range of cactus species available in fantasy worlds is up for grabs, but putting them all over Arabia, Africa, and Australia is pure folly (granted, they have been cultivated abroad for ornamentation and fruit, particularly the Pitaya, but seeing them in the wild outside the Americas is right out).

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 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. The bit about sand is also exaggerated, as many deserts, including where cacti grow native, are rocky rather than sandy.

In addition, as hinted at above, Antarctica is in fact a desert, as the true definition of a desert is a location with extremely low precipitation a.k.a. not much rain/snow. It's a cold desert, but a desert nonetheless, and the world's largest at that.

Probably a result of either Small Reference Pools or Did Not Do the Research. Or maybe both. May also be a result of filming any desert scene in an area where cacti grow due to lacking the budget to film on location. A subtrope of Artistic License Geography. See Misplaced Vegetation.

Examples of All Deserts Have Cacti include:

Anime and Manga

  • A brief gag during the Arabasta arc of One Piece had Luffy drink from a cactus, despite the kingdom being more Arabic than American, with near-identical results to the Avatar: The Last Airbender example below. Luckily, Chopper, the team doctor, happened to have a needle full of tranquilizer on him...
  • In the Mushroom Samba episode of Cowboy Bebop, the crew runs out of fuel and crash-lands on Europa, the moon of Jupiter. The series often pays homage to its roots, and this part of Europa just so happens to have been terraformed into a desert typical of the American southwest, complete with cacti.
  • Averted in Desert Punk: 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.
  • Iriya no Sora UFO no Natsu uses the "all deserts are sandy wastelands" variation to portray Nevada, complete with a raging sandstorm.
  • 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.

Comic Books

  • In Elf Quest, 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.
  • Averted in The Adventures of Tintin, which places the characters in Arabian Deserts numerous times with no cacti.
  • In one comic, Bamse dug next to a cactus, hoping to find water. He instead found oil, which was spotted by bedouins, who then came to Bamse's aid.


  • This is Averted Trope in Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's definitive Road To... movie, The Road To Morocco (which is peculiar, considering that classic films in foreign locales tend to go for the obvious stereotype). There are plenty of palm trees and rose bushes, but not a single cactus in the roughly hour-and-twenty-minute film.
  • In the silent film King Of Kings, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Jesus Christ (played by actor H. B. Warner) preaches in the Holy Land while standing next to a beavertail cactus.
    • In the 1961 film that shares that title, Jesus Christ (played by actor Jeffrey Hunter), while fasting in the wilderness, breaks open a beavertail cactus leaf and drinks the water inside.
  • The film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 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.
  • Averted and lampshaded in the 2007 movie Wild Hogs.
  • 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.

Live Action TV

  • Intentionally used in Monty Python's Flying Circus in "Scott of the Sahara" with cardboard saguaro cacti in the Sahara Desert as produced by a bad moviemaker.

Newspaper Comics

  • 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 lives in Needles, CA, that's too far north for saguaros.
  • Crock features cacti prominently in the Sahara.

Video Games

  • A lot of Shifting Sand Land levels in games have cacti, which sometimes act as enemies or spiky obstacles to damage your health. Pyramids, too.
  • Gobi's Valley in Banjo-Kazooie includes these, despite being ancient Egyptian themed.
    • Never mind that it's named after a desert in Asia.
      • Technically, it's named after a camel who's named after a desert in Asia.
  • In Terranigma, the Gobi desert (which is located in Asia, by the way) is covered in cacti.
  • Route 111 in Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald includes a desert and is the only place you can find a Cacnea, despite Hoenn being a Fantasy Counterpart Culture to the Japanese island of Kyushu.
    • Likewise Route 228 in Diamond/Pearl/Platinum, featuring Cacnea's evolved form Cacturne. This despite Sinnoh being based of Hokkaido.
      • Then again, having designed the Pokémon before the routes, where else could they have placed them, which would be at least somewhat logical to the player?
    • The Desert Resort in Pokémon Black and White features a new cactus Pokémon, Maractus, though Unova is at least based on someplace in the New World (New Jersey and New York).
  • Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga features the Spiky Snifits, found in the desert Teehee Valley.
    • The Mario series also has the cactus enemy Pokey, who appears in just about every desert level. (Except World 2 of Super Mario Bros 3; Pokey wasn't in that game.)
  • In the original Spyro the Dragon, 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.
  • Zelda II the Adventure of Link. Love it or hate it, there are cacti in enemy battles in the desert. These are only one-armed, though.
    • The Gerudo Desert in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess is notable for being cactus-free.
      • There are Leevers in both,which are basically mobile, carnivorous cacti. They appear less cactus-like in some games, but the ones in Twilight Princess (also seen later in the spinoff Link's Crossbow Training) are unmistakably evil prickly pears. Leevers are also found in the desert section of the original game, which is otherwise devoid of cacti.
      • Note, though, that Zelda, along with many fantasy games, gets a pass on the geographically-incorrect part since it's not set in the real world and therefore can have any type of biome it wants as a backdrop.
  • Another notable aversion: the desert region of Guild Wars are mostly, if not entirely, cactus-free. Appropriate, as the desert regions are all in Elona, the local analogue of north Africa.
    • Though at the same time, there aren't really any Succulents, which are native to Africa and Arabia. (Such as the famous Aloe Vera)
  • Kirby 64 The Crystal Shards contains a Single Biome Planet based off of deserts. The first level of this planet is based off of ancient Egypt, yet the background is filled with cacti.
  • Tales of Vesperia is guilty of this, featuring a desert where you must deflate cacti with your sorcerer's ring to restock your water supply periodically.
  • Golden Sun, despite being set in a fantasy world, is guilty of two deserts with cacti in the battle scenery in the first game. The America-equivalent continents don't get explored until the second game, and the deserts on those use battle scenery that doesn't have cacti. Whoops.
    • This is actually more of an aversion, as it disregards the trope quite nicely.
  • In Team Buddies, you are sure to find cacti (and possibly pyramids) in all the desert levels.
  • The opening stage of Mega Man 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.
  • Far Cry 2 falls prey to this Trope, having big the middle of Africa...
  • In Dwarf Fortress, the default data files specify that all desert biomes contain saguaros. Fortunately, the game does recognize 3 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • No matter where you deploy for UFO recovery in the world in X-COM, as long as you touch down in desert, you will see cacti and pyramids when you disembark from the Skyranger.
  • Backyard Football has Cactus Gulch, which know.
  • The third Jak and Daxter game has cacti spread throughout the Wasteland.
  • The first Toejam and Earl game had sand, mostly in later levels. The sand nearly always came with cacti.
  • Played realistically in World of Warcraft, where Durotar is the only desert region in the game with cacti. Silithus and Tanaris are just sand dunes, while the Barrens and Desolace (before the Cataclysm) are more like savannahs.
    • Tanaris does have Thistleshrub Valley in one corner of the zone, which is a large cacti jungle, but that's Truth in Television, as the Real Life section can attest to. Also, Uldum, which is an Egypt analog, doesn't have a single cactus in it's entirity, averting this trope yet again.
  • Averted in the Zoo Tycoon games, in which placing cacti in an exhibit with North African, Asian, or Australian desert animals reduces the exhibit's rating for species-appropriateness.
  • Bug!! has is a desert level, and there are saguaro cacti. However, the level is based off the Arizona Desert, so it fits.
  • 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.
  • Cacti in Minecraft can rarely spawn anywhere on sand, except for desert biomes where they are everywhere.
  • Putt-Putt Travels Through Time has cacti in the Old West time period.
  • Freddi Fish 4: The Case of the Hogfish Rustlers of Briny Gulch takes place in the Old West, so of course it has loads of cacti.
  • In Terraria, all desert biomes (created when there's a large enough concentration of sand) automatically grow cacti.


Western Animation

  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show set in a mythological Asian-esque land, Sokka sings "Drink cactus juice, it'll quench ya. Nothing's quenchier" while high on cactus juice. However, the cactus Sokka just drank from turns out to be the only one they ever see along the way.
  • Road Runner and Coyote cartoons, obviously. Justified in that they take place in the American Southwest, where cacti are indigenous.
  • 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.
  • Averted in Aladdin. There are no cacti in Agrabah.
  • Also averted in The Mysterious Cities of Gold, and they actually point out that cacti are full of water when the characters are stranded on the Galapagos islands.
  • Justified in The Magic School Bus, because they actually go to an American desert.
  • Both Madagascar and The Jungle Book featured cacti growing in jungles.
    • On the other hand, 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.
  • Jimmy Two-Shoes: The only time in the series a desert is scene, it involves a lot of cacti.

Real Life

  • Played dead-straight by the transplantation of cactus species across the planet. The prickly-pear cactus, also known as the tzabar or sabra, has become known as emblematic of Israelis. It's native to southwestern North America, but don't go telling that to the hummus company.
    • It's also a beloved plant for the Berbers in Morocco, who have a lengthy tale about how Allah gave it to them thousands of years ago so they could survive being lost in the desert by eating its fruit. Never mention in their presence that it was introduced by the Spanish just a few centuries ago.
  • After the 2004 tsunami, prickly pear cacti were found growing in southern India.
  • Cacti may often be found growing in Southeast Asia. The Pitaya fruit, also known as Dragonfruit, is native to Mexico but was popular in Vietnam and Thailand.
  • Incidentally, the deserts of America, Australia, and Africa all have their own unique range of desert flora found nowhere else on the planet. So you can even tell if they're doubling Australia for the Sahara if you know your plants.
    • Unless they are invading plants. Nopales and agaves (both American in origin) have successfully colonized parts of Australia and the Mediterranean.
    • Or transplants. Aloe plantations can be found in Australia.
  • The opposite of this is also true. Cacti don't immediately imply desert. Prickly pears grow throughout a lot of the Midwest, up into Canada. There are lots of epiphytic jungle cacti. And then you have the Pereskias, better known as the rose or leaf cacti, which are non-succulent cacti with broad leaves. They are still exclusively native to the Americas (unless transplanted elsewhere), however.
    • Some cactus species grow tall and lush enough to form forests, all on their own. Check out pictures of the smaller Galapagos Islands if you doubt this.
    • Before the introduction of the Cactoblastis cactorum, the prickly pear was a SERIOUS feral plant in Australia.
  • It's quite possible to grow cacti in your own lawn or garden. They're low maintenance, and can deter intruders (and injure the unwary). Just watch where you walk barefoot.
  • It is also noted that there are indigenous cacti for places like New England that look like paddle cacti.