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Sunrise over cacti and sisal on East Caicos.

Turks Head Cacti

A young Turks head cacti.

The Turks and Caicos is home to four indigenous varieties of cacti or cactus, and the Turks head (also known as the Turks cap cacti) is the rarest and most-iconic.

The Turks head cacti (Melocactus intortous) is a variety of small barrel cactus, with a mature height rarely exceeding 24 inches (61cm) and diameter of 14 inches (35cm).

A reddish cap tops the cacti, and it’s easy to see where the cacti got its name as this cap resembles a Turkish fez hat.

Outside of the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Melocactus intortous type of Turks head cacti is also found throughout the Antilles, including Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, and Antigua and Barbuda.

The Turks head cacti appears on both the Turks and Caicos flag and coat of arms.

Turks head cacti on Goods Hill, East Caicos.

The Fruit

Throughout the year, a mature cacti will produce small flowers and fruit on its cap.

Although tiny, the fruits are tasty, and are pursued by iguanas, lizards and birds (and sometimes humans!).

Habitat and Environment

The Turks head cacti comes in many shapes and sizes!

Due to the lack of competition, the Turks head cacti is typically found in exposed and dry regions. In the Turks and Caicos, these areas are usually natural eroded limestone bedding landscapes, or in some cases, hard sandy dunes.

Unfortunately, the cacti has largely disappeared from the main populated islands. The majority of existing plants are located on East Caicos and Big Ambergris Cay, with small clusters on Middle Caicos and a select few other cays.

Landscaping and Cultivation

In a dry tropical setting such as the Turks and Caicos, the Turks head cacti is a very low maintenance plant.

The cacti favours full sunlight and a sand and gravel mixture. Avoid the rich soil that most plants thrive in.

The greatest mistake when raising the Turks head cacti is overwatering. In most situations, normal precipitation is sufficient.

The Pirate Islands and Turks and Caicos Name

Another unique Turks head cacti!

A commonly-held misconception is that the Turks and Caicos is named after the Turks head cacti. In reality, the nation’s name is likely derived from the pirates and buccaneers that used to lurk in the islands.

In past centuries, Islamic pirates, slavers and corsairs preyed on the coasts and waters surrounding Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa, and parts of south-western Asia.

Due to these Barbary pirates, Turk was used at the time as a synonym for pirate.

An early European map maker, his name lost to history, marked what is now the Turks and Caicos with a variant of Turks Islands as a warning to travellers.

The word Caicos is an adaption of the Taino word for “archipelago”.

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