Cactus and Succulents

There is a simple answer to the understandable confusion over whether a cactus is a succulent - or not: One is a subset of the other.

An understandably common question with gardeners new to growing cactus and succulents, is what’s the difference? Is a cactus a succulent?”

The simple answer is yes. There are six large families of plants called succulents, and cacti, in the Cactadceae family,  are just one of them. Members of both cacti and succulents in the other five families are native to seasonally-dry deserts, seaside cliffs, frozen Alpine mountain conditions, and even high in tropical jungle trees where less water is available.

The word succulent simply means juicy, and when applied to plants it refers to plants with special cells that can absorb and store water during brief rainy spells, and slowly release the moisture to the plants in dry spells. Every succulent, including and succulent cactus plants, have fleshy, often-plump leaves and stems that do this. So whether a plant is a true succulent cactus or any of the many other kinds of tropical or desert succulents, they are all well- adapted to survive long periods without rain or watering.

There are many types and varieties of each family, all terrific plants for gardeners who live in naturally-dry climates or where water use is restricted, or who want interesting, colorful plants for patios or bright indoor windows but don’t have time or patience to grow thirstier plants.

Most cacti and other succulents require very bright light, but often protection from hot mid-day sun. Though some are perfectly fine outdoors in harsh, cold climates, many are damaged or killed by freezes and need to be kept indoors during the winter. All require well-drained garden sites or container potting soils, and only occasional watering.

The Main Difference

What makes a cactus succulent is less important than what makes it a true cactus: Small lumps called aeroles, from which spines and leaf buds sprout. While many different kinds of each family can have thorny spines or prickles nearly anywhere on their stems or leaves, only true members of the Cactaceae family have these unique areole features.

Commonly grown true cacti include golden barrel (Echinocereus), fishhook cactus (Ferocactus), cholla (Cylindropuntia), prickly pear (Opuntia), and pincushion cactus (Mammillaria). Popular members of the other five families which may have sharp protrusions, but not areoles, include Agave, Crassula, Euphorbia, Aloe, and Haworthia. Look these up to find some of the most astounding plants any gardener would wish for. 

And know that, just as all trucks are vehicles, but not all vehicles are trucks, all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.

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