Are Cacti Succulents?

Are cacti succulents? Both words are often used interchangeably. The similarity in their characteristics and appearance makes it easy to mistake succulents for cacti, especially since they’re closely related.

To answer your question, yes, cacti are succulents. They’re a subcategory of succulents, so they share a lot of properties with their mother plant.

Let’s compare both and see how many similarities they share.

Are Cacti Succulents?

Yes, cacti fall under the umbrella of succulents, which means all cacti are succulents. However, the succulents umbrella includes many more plants that aren’t cacti.

Additionally, cacti don’t have all the properties of succulents, and vice versa.

Cacti vs Succulents: A Full Comparison

Cacti and succulents happen to be almost indistinguishable from each other. They have a close resemblance to each other when it comes to appearance and biological conditions. However, what makes cacti different from succulents, and vice versa?

First, let’s identify succulents!

What Are Succulents?

Colorful succulents

You may know succulents as cute potted plants, bulbs, and shrubs with plump leaves. Or, you may have seen them used as decor in someone’s house.

Recently, there’s been a spike in the popularity of succulents, especially among millennials. It’s a low-demand plant and is perennial, which means you can keep it without having to spend too much time taking care of it. Perfect for our busy lives, if you ask me.

Succulents, meaning “full of juice or sap,” refer to the wide variety of plants characterized by their fat and fleshy stem or leaves, showcasing their notable ability to retain moisture and water for photosynthesis.

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Origin of Succulents

Native to Europe, most succulents are found in dry areas and deserts. However, they are also widely distributed across other continents, including Asia, America, and Africa.

But you may have seen succulents outside these areas. Several variants of succulents sprung up and are being discovered in different soil conditions, retaining only their most innate traits.

Here is how to identify succulent plants.

Succulents’ Characteristics

You can identify succulent plants through their unique appearance and water-retaining abilities as their mechanism to survive the hottest and roughest habitats.

A succulent plant generally has:

  • Thick, watery, and fleshy stems/leaves
  • Compact growth form (cylindrical, barrel, globular)
  • Less number of stomata to minimize loss of water molecules
  • Watertight/waterproof leaves and skin
  • Often ribbed, waxy, hairy outer surfaces for humidity and to reduce sun exposure
  • Shallow roots to absorb the most water
  • Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) photosynthesis

Types of Succulent Plants

Succulents aren’t classified under a specific family but are closely related to many families of similar biological structures, such as Crassula, Echeveria, Aizoaceae, and Cactaceae, etc.

Some examples of succulents:

While succulents cover a broad group of plants, including our topic of discussion, there are limitations as to what is considered a succulent.

Non-Succulent Succulents

Some plants with root bulbs and tubers are naturally succulents but are not classified as the succulent plants we’re familiar with. What does that mean?

In botany and horticulture, the definition and identification of succulents differ. For instance, bromeliads and cacti are not considered succulents in horticulture. Bromeliads are more closely related to the pineapple family, and cacti’s identity was initially unknown.

Horticulturists classify plants as succulents based on their horticultural use and the desirability of succulent collectors to raise them. So, some classifications may seem a bit odd, like classifying cacti as non-succulents.

In general, succulents refer to water-swollen plants seen above the ground. They can also be epiphytic ‘air plants,’ such as Epiphytic Cacti and aquatic (Crassula helmsii).

So, what about cacti?

The Cactus Plant (Cacti)

Cactus, also cacti (plural), under the Cactaceae family, is a flower-bearing plant distinctly known for its long (or rounded) stems and spiky appearance. These plants are well-known for their ability to store water in their green stems and endure living under hot weather and drought.

As such, the cactus family is commonly found in deserts and dry soil. Although they originated in the Americas, cacti are now distributed across different ecosystems and soil conditions, and they have plenty of diverse forms.

Characteristics of Cacti

Prickly Pear Cactus

To recognize that what you are seeing are cacti, it is useful to remember these common characteristics of the plant:

  • Broadly hairy, spiky spines– not thorns (but some are spineless such as Astrophytum myriostigma, etc.)
  • Mostly without leaves, reduced or modified into spines
  • Ribbed stems, cylindrical, round, paddle-like
  • Stems store water for CAM photosynthesis
  • Xerophytic, meaning it’s adaptable to live in dry areas
  • Ornamental and flowering
  • Presence of “areoles,” small bumpy dots where leaves, spines, and new branches sprout

Some examples of cacti are the Prickly pear, the San Pedro cactus, and Saguaro.

Also Check: How to Replant Succulents

Similarities and Differences Between Cacti and Succulents

As you might have already noticed, there are a lot of similarities between cacti and succulents. That’s why a lot of people think they’re the same thing.

How Are They Similar?

Here are all the similarities between cacti and succulents:

  1. Cacti and succulents are both perennial plants, capable of blooming flowers.
  2. Both are usually associated with dry, hot places like deserts, and both are tolerant to drought conditions
  3. They are uniquely structured to store water inside their organs to survive. They also adapt modified forms following external influence.
  4. Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) photosynthesis and their water preservation traits

The curious appearance and survivability of succulents and cacti made them popular houseplants. Plus, the fact that both can be easily propagated makes people love them even more. That way, you don’t have to buy a new plant every time you want to add one to your collection.

As they grow more varied in shapes and forms, identifying them based on their ornamental condition became difficult, as new variants are popping up every day. That’s why you need to also learn about their differences, so you’re able to tell them apart.

How Are They Different?

Unlike cacti, succulents do not fall under a specific family. Instead, it is a classification of plants based on their ability to store water inside their organs, which includes cacti and xerophytes.

What makes cacti distinct from succulents?

  • Needle-like spines instead of leaves
  • Have a larger and more intricate flower pattern than the rest of the succulents
  • Capability to bear fruit; succulents can’t
  • Presence of “areoles;” other succulents don’t have those

Although it is easy to name a cactus by a glance at its appearance, the foolproof way of distinguishing a cactus from a succulent is to look for its areoles. Areoles are unique to cacti, so they’re the easiest way to identify them.

Below are some examples of commonly mistaken succulents for cacti.

Cactus-like Succulents

Pachypodium lamerei

So, you figured that cacti are succulent plants and succulents are not cacti. But, these plants will likely confuse you:

  • Spurge Plant (Euphorbia)
  • Starfish Cactus ( Apocynaceae)
  • Madagascar Palm (Pachypodium lamerei)
  • Agave
  • Aloe

These succulents are mostly confused for cacti due to their alikeness. They have similar succulent stems, thorns, and spines. In spite of this, they lack most other qualities of cacti.

Key Takeaways

So, are cacti succulents?

Cacti fall under the broad description of succulents, sharing their water-storing mechanisms and their survival attributes. All cacti are succulents, but not vice versa.

Succulents are a group of plants with similarly thick, watery, and plump leaves or stems. They’re not a family of plants. Instead, the succulent classification includes several families including Cactaceae, the cactus family.

If you know the key distinctions of cacti, you’ll be easily able to tell them apart from the rest of succulents.