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Is A Cactus A Succulent? The Surprising Answer

What qualifies as a cactus is “any numerous of succulent, spiny, usually leafless plants of the family Cactaceae,” according to dictionary definitions.

These ambiguous plants, native to regions of the Americas can be easily identified by their numerous stamens and sometimes colorful flowers.

Is A Cactus A Succulent

Today, cactus plants are extremely popular household decorations. Despite worldwide appreciation, cacti are widely misunderstood, and not many people know much the history of this prickly plant.

These pretty but prickly plants are often the cause of confusion among casual plant owners, and many have no idea what cactus plants actually are.

A lot of people also confuse cactus plants with succulents or believe they are one and the same (in short, they’re both different and the same. Confusing, right?).

This article seeks to uncover the difference between a cactus and a succulent, as well as what they have in common. Keep reading to find out.

What is a cactus?

First off, the name cactus stems from the Latin word Kaktos meaning ‘spiny plant’. The plant later developed the name Cactaceae to refer to any plants that appeared to have the following traits:

  • Very few leaves and often no leaves at all
  • Prickly and/or hairy appearance
  • Ability to store lots of water in their stems

It is thought that cacti originated around 30 million years ago. They come in various shapes and sizes and their natural habitat is areas that  are subject to drought, most notably the desert, hence why they have the ability to store lots of water in preparation for times when they won’t see water for possibly months at a time. 

If you’ve ever wondered the reason for their prickly appearance, it’s actually to protect them from herbivores.

These desert plants have come to find a new home in recent years, though: inside most people’s homes.

The popular houseplant is beloved among homeowners due to their unique appearance and the fact that they are relatively low maintenance, so they can be left for long periods of time and can thrive on their own.

Not only do they make for pretty decorations, in some parts of the world some variations of cactus are even used for food, such as the Indian fig cactus, for example.

In fact, almost all ‘fleshy’ cactus plants are edible. Another popular example is the Dragon fruit, which is eaten in most parts of the world.

So, what is a succulent, then?

What is a succulent?

Succulents, by definition, are plants that are resistant to drought due to the ‘fleshy’ water-storing tissue within their leaves, roots, or stems’ ability to retain water.

The name is derived from the Latin word sucus, meaning ‘sap’ or juice’ likely due to the fact that their stems, leaves and roots will contain a sap-like substance due to the fact that they retain so much water. A popular succulent is the Aloe Vera plant.

Much like cacti, succulents are often found in the desert and warmer parts of the world. Common places to find succulents are The Americas, Africa, Mexico, the Mediterranean and more!

Their ability to store water in their leaves, stems and roots is what gives them their bloated, fleshy appearance. In fact, some succulents can consist of 90-95% water!

On top of their ability to store water, succulents also have several other defining characteristics. These include:

  • Cylindrical leaves or reduced/absent leaves
  • Stems rather than leaves
  • Waxy, hairy or spiny ‘skin’
  • Roots very close to the surface of the soil
  • Able to withstand very hot temperatures and drought conditions while retaining lots of water
  • Compact, cushion-like, spherical or columnar growth form

You may be thinking, but lots of these characteristics are also present in cacti? So, what’s the difference?

What’s the difference between a catus and succulent?

Understandably, most people don’t realize that cacti and succulents aren’t actually the same plant. There isn’t actually that much difference between a cactus and a succulent.

People often tend to refer to them both interchangeably, as they look very similar and survive in almost exactly the same way.

The main difference between a succulent and a catus is that cacti don’t grow leaves and are often hairy and/ or spiky, whereas succulents do tend to grow leaves and are very often smooth to the touch.

That being said, while it is more common for a cactus to be spiky and hairy and for a succulent to be smooth, the characteristics that define a succulent do include ‘hairy’ and/or ‘spiny’ in appearance.

So what’s the deal with cacti? Are they succulents after all?

Is a cactus a succulent?

The cactus plant belongs to the family known as ‘Cactaceae’, and succulent plants belong to an even larger group labelled ‘Succulent’.

That being said, Cactaceae are scientifically considered succulents, but they are often excluded from literature detailing succulents.

To break it down into the simplest terms, a succulent is not a cactus, but a cactus does come under the umbrella term ‘succulent’. 

This is because the criteria for identifying a succulent, is a plant that displays the characteristic known as ‘succulence’. This means the ability to store lots of water in their leaves, stems and/or roots – something that cacti are very good at!

That does not mean that cacti and succulents are one and the same, though, as shown by the differences listed above.

Final say

Differentiating a cactus and a succulent can be confusing, particularly because of how many things they have in common.

Both are very desirable household plants and are very similar in appearance and maintenance, and it’s common for literature to refer to them as if they are one and the same.

While there are lots of characteristics that connect them, there are of course examples where they are different.

The biggest defining characteristic between the two is the leaves or lack thereof. Cacti do not tend to grow leaves, whereas succulents sometimes do.

That being said, a succulent includes any plant that is able to store water in its stems. So to conclude, all cactus plants are succulents, but all succulents aren’t cacti. Let’s just say they’re related but not the same.