The cactus life-form is cited as an example of a tight relationship between organism form and function: a succulent, long-lived, photosynthetic stem allows cacti to survive long periods of drought while maintaining a positive tissue water status. Pereskia (Cactaceae) comprises 17 species of leafy shrubs and trees that are thought to represent the original cactus condition. Recent phylogenetic work has shown that there are two separate clades of Pereskia species, which are basal and paraphyletic with respect to the rest of the cacti. We selected seven Pereskia species, representing both clades, and characterized their water relations by measuring a suite of physiological traits in wild populations. Additionally, we estimated basic climate parameters from collection localities for all 17 Pereskia species. Extant Pereskia species exhibit ecological water use patterns that are very similar to those of the leafless, stem-succulent cacti. Ancestral trait reconstruction for the physiological and environmental data provides a preliminary assessment of the ecology and water relations of the earliest cacti and suggests that several key elements of the cactus ecological niche were established before the evolution of the cactus life-form. We interpret these ecological traits as potentially important drivers of evolutionary innovation in the cacti.