Is a Cactus a Succulent?
Is a cactus a succulent? The technical answer depends on who you ask:
Horticulturalists will rarely refer to a cactus as a succulent. On the other hand, botanists will usually classify a cactus as a type of succulent.
This can make research, classification, and even shopping extremely difficult depending on where you look!
Horticulture is an applied science that focuses on the cultivation of plants that can be grown for food or used for decoration.
Because there are a limited number of edible and decorative plants, succulents and cacti are usually split into two different groups. This makes it easier to distinguish plant varieties based on how they grow, appear, and taste.
Botany is a broad science that encompasses all plant life whether it’s grass, trees, or even algae.
Since botanists are often responsible for classifying new plants, umbrella terms like “succulent” describe thousands of different species.For example, all cacti are a type of succulent, but not all succulents are cacti.
Succulent and Cactus Definition
By definition, a cactus is technically a type of succulent:
A succulent is a plant with thick and fleshy parts that retain water. Also, succulents usually grow in dry parts of the world with poor soil. Nevertheless, some varieties grow across the planet.
A cactus is a plant with thick and fleshy stems. They usually have spines and lack leaves, while also storing a large amount of water.
Even though cacti sometimes lack leaves, they are classified as succulents because they store water in fleshy parts like stems and roots.
In fact, about sixty different plant families fall under the category of succulents.
iucn.org explains more about what cacti and succulents are.
Although cacti are types of succulents, a few major differences are leading to separate horticultural classification. Most differences are based on appearance, which makes each group easy to identify:
- Cacti have areoles (small colored bumps) that produce spines while other succulents do not. Cactus spines can be sharp, short, long, or fuzzy. They help defend the plant from predators and reduce airflow to hold water. Succulents, like aloe vera, sometimes have spines too; however, they do not have areoles like a cactus. Often, succulents will grow rows of teeth on their leaves for protection.
2. Cactus plants usually don’t have leaves. This isn’t always true, but fewer leaves help to retain more water. If a cactus does have leaves (like Pereskiopsis), then they will be thin and pointy. Succulents have wide and fleshy leaves. Rather than storing water in enormous stems, succulents store most of their water in broad leaves.
3. Cacti are native to the New World. This key difference isn’t as relevant, but cacti are species from the western hemisphere. Nonetheless, there are still species of succulents in North and South America.
Examples of Succulents that Aren’t Cacti:
- Aloe Vera
Probably one of the most well-known succulents, Aloe vera is great for healing sunburns and is jam-packed with beneficial vitamins. It thrives in warm, dry climates and is easy to grow indoors.
There are tons of different aloe varieties and new ones are bred all the time. These beautiful plants grow low to the ground and grow leaves bigger than a person’s arm!
Check out our webpage on aloe vera care and maintenance.
- Jade PlantsBy far the easiest plant to propagate, a single jade plant can create an army. It will grow new plants from roots, stems, and leaves. Additionally, jade plants can go weeks without water.
Most varieties have dark green oval leaves. However, some varieties grow curled or pointed leaves. They are great for small office spaces!
We now have an in-depth care and maintenance guide for Jade Plants
- Snake PlantsSnake plants are pretty popular and as their name suggests, they look like snakes! Most types have a snakeskin-like pattern that wraps up their long and straight leaves.
Also, snake plants are considered houseplants. They can reach up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) tall if given the room. Because they are succulents, they thrive with little water.
Learn more about snake plants on our webpage!
Types of Cacti:
- Peanut CactiPeanut cacti are a group of low growing cacti native to parts of South America. They grow in clumps with long, slender branches that resemble peanuts or fingers.
They will easily flower and will do so multiple times during the summer. Their flowers can be found in almost any color, and the plants are quite durable.
Learn all about peanut cacti and their amazing colors on our page.
- Dragon Fruit (Pitaya)Dragon fruit, which produces edible fruits, grows more like an ivy than it does a conventional cactus. After a few years, they will produce pink-skinned fruits that can be sliced open and eaten.
They can be grown in warm areas across the globe but will thrive indoors if given proper water, light, and heat.
- San Pedro CactusRelatively simple, the San Pedro Cactus is perfect for grafting rare species and is used as decoration. It grows tall and quick with a bluish hue.
The species is found high in the Andes Mountains, but it has since spread to homes and gardens around the world.
Furthermore, the cactus produces an alkaloid that causes hallucinations. The San Pedro Cactus is a perfect example of why you shouldn’t run around the desert trying to survive on cactus juice.
We just released a new care and maintenance guide for the San Pedro Cactus.
Conclusion: Is Cactus a Succulent?
Is a cactus a succulent? Well, the definitive answer is… whatever you choose!
It’s a bit underwhelming, but the answer can be both yes or no. There’s substantial evidence that backs both sides.
Horticulturalists claim that cacti and succulents are different for appearance and cultivation. Botanists list cacti as a succulent for ease of organization and taxonomy.
By definition, a cactus is technically a type of succulent. However, there are significant differences between cacti and succulents that can’t be ignored.