Succulents vs cacti. What is the difference?

Compact cacti and succulents are equally loved by many people due to their good looks and unpretentiousness in care. When choosing a plant, we rely on family membership to better understand common care canons. Unfortunately, confusion often occurs – in front of us is a cactus or succulent. To avoid the immediate death of the plant due to improper care, let’s look at the main distinguishing features of cacti and succulents from the point of view of botany.


Cacti blooming All cacti are representatives of one family – Cactaceae. The family has about 1750 diverse species, most of which grow in the arid deserts of North and South America, the Caribbean and Bahamas, Africa, Madagascar and Sri Lanka.

Cacti tend to accumulate fluid in their tissues, so they live well in areas of high drought with minimal rainfall. Their main distinguishing feature is the presence of areoles, independent organs that look like small hairy, woolly bundles at the base of thorns. Most representatives of the cactus family have small, bundled, needles – modified branches and leaves that turned into spikes during evolution. They help to spend less fluid, protect against eating animals, in some cases they are a protective layer between the plant and the scorching sun in the desert.

The main differences between cactus and succulents:
cactus – a succulent plant with thorns;
the cactus has an independent organ – the areola;
the cactus fruit is placed below the petals (like cucumbers);
cactus fruit – a berry covered with a leathery shell.

But, as with all rules, there are exceptions. Not all cacti have needles, and according to some characteristics it is impossible to determine whether it is a cactus or another plant, since it is necessary for the plant to begin to bloom, which is extremely rare outside the natural habitat.

Even if your cactus turns out to be an “impostor” – this is not a reason to be upset, there are often bright collections of cacti in composition with succulents.


Succulents In the classical sense, succulents are neither a genus nor a family. These plants are not related to each other by common origin. They got the name “succulent” for their ability to stock up on water (cell juice), and their appearance is explained by similar living conditions. Succulents (which means “juicy” in Latin) are found among representatives of distant families, such as Araceae, Bromeliaceae, Orchidaceae, Vitaceae, and the similarity of euphorbia with cacti is quite striking. Succulents accumulate water in their fleshy leaves for one purpose – to safely survive the period of drought, preserving its aerial part in its original form. In other words, succulents include all plants that have the ability to accumulate reservoirs of water or juice in leaves, stems and roots. It can be assumed that all cacti are succulents, and all succulents are cacti. But it’s not so simple, every rule always has exceptions. For example, echeveria is a typical example of succulent, and looking at begonia is not so obvious. It should be noted that succulents also grow in tropical climates. Epiphytic plants (for example, hatiors and ripsalidopsis) live on tree trunks, and are stocked with water during tropical rains. Today, there are over 13,000 species of succulents belonging to 80 families.

Why do some succulents look like stones?

There are plants with very massive leaves, growing directly from the ground, and resembling large stones in shape and color (for example, lithops, fenestaria, etc.). Flowers, white or orange, appear in a crevice between two leaves in the fall. These delightful plants are the pride of many collectors, just as easy to care for: they are grown in a substrate for cacti in bright light and with minimal watering.


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