Originally cacti grew only on the American continent. Succulents were native to the Far East, although most were concentrated in southern and eastern Africa. Throughout the centuries of distribution of these plants, they established habitats throughout the world. The text below provides a brief idea of the complex history of the cactus family, such as the discovery, distribution, and classification of the Cactus family.
It is sometimes been said that Cristopher Columbus brought back the first cactus to Europe, but that is not entirely accurate. In 1635 the earliest European record was established. This was the date that the first volume of Historia de las Indias Occidentales by Gonzalo Hernandez de Oviedo y Valdes appeared with illustrations of what we would now classify as Cereus and Opuntia. According to one legend, the Aztecs (in Mexico) founded their capital, Tenochtitlan, in 1325, on the basis of a priest’s dream that a cactus growing out of a rock became a tree so luxuriant that an eagle settled upon it.
History also dates back to Natives of the American continent. Fra Bernardino learned that natives used a certain plant to induce a hallucinatory state. Since he probably knew that all native and primitive people used mushrooms as hallucinogens, he named this hallucinogenic plant teonanacatl, or divine mushroom. But today we know that this plant was not a mushroom, but rather the cactus Lophophora williamsii, better known as peyote or mescal. It is a possibility that Ariocarpus, Pelecyphora, and Obregonia were used in similar ways.
Over the centuries, a great number of European discoveries have been made. Due to the great number of succulent species found, classification problems arose. Over the past centuries, species in the cactus family were classified and reclassified again and again. It was not until 1904 that two dedicated Americans: Nathaniel Lord Britton, director of the New York Botanical Gardens, and Joseph Nelson Rose, assistant curator of the United States National Museum Herbarium of the Smithsonian Institution, traveled the American continents, went to Europe to view European collections of cacti, consulted herbals and archives and obtained the collaboration of famous botanists, collectors, and private individuals, thus from 1919 to 1923, published their four-volume Cactaceae. In these volumes, they divided the Cactaceae family into tribes, subtribes, and occasionally series; established many new genera, and eliminated others. This division is still followed by many today, however, new discoveries have been added and some modifications have been made.