Succulents and Cacti: What Is The Difference?

What is the difference between succulents and cacti? Is your cactus really a succulent? If you are confused about cacti and succulents and whether they are different plants or the same types of plants, we are here to explain all!

When it comes to houseplants, succulents and cacti are two of the most popular. With their unique appearances, ability to thrive in dry climates and low maintenance needs (yes, I forget to water my plants…), cacti and succulents have become firm favorites around the world.

Many people may use the two terms cactus and succulent interchangeably, but does that mean they’re the same?

Succulents and Cacti What Is the Difference Display of cacti and succulents in pots

Well, sort of. The term succulent is a catch-all name that covers a large number of plants and plant types. Cacti are a subset of succulents and have their own distinctive characteristics that make them stand out from other succulents.

All cacti are succulents. But not all succulents are cacti.

I hope that makes sense, but don’t worry, we’ve got more to tell you.

Understanding the differences that make cacti a unique group of succulents is key to having thriving plants in your home.

This article aims to guide you through the differences that exist between cacti and other succulent plants.

What Are Succulents?

Succulents are not a single plant family. You can find succulents spread across nearly 60 different families of plants. Species such as Crassula, Echeveria and Sempervivum and the many thousands of varieties within those plant species are all succulents.

You can see the broad range of plants in our guide to identifying succulents.

All succulents are water-storing plants, which makes them particularly suited to dry and arid climates. Although you can find succulents worldwide, many are native to dry, arid areas of countries such as Mexico and South Africa.

Succulents store water in their leaves and stems. Their leaves often look like they are swollen, especially when compared to the thinner leaves of other types of plants. They need to store enough water to help them survive the dry conditions they are native to, and this gives their leaves a juicy, fleshy look.

Plump succulent leaves

In fact, one definition of a succulent is “a plant having thick fleshy leaves or stems adapted to storing water.”

Succulents have become very popular as houseplants in recent decades because they grow in such a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and are seen as needing less maintenance than many other houseplants. They generally don’t need as much water as most other plants do and can often tolerate some neglect or forgetfulness from their owners.

What Are Cacti?

When most people think of cactus (or cacti – the plural of cactus), they probably imagine solid green stems covered in sharp spines with no leaves.

Although many cacti do fit this description, there are many that don’t, making them a more varied type of plant than most people might expect. Some varieties of cacti don’t have spines at all.

All cacti are considered succulents as they store water in their fleshy stems. However, not all succulents are cacti. Most cacti are native to deserts throughout the Americas.

Cacti are easily identifiable by their areoles. These are small and round bumps that are found on the surface of the cacti. On many cacti, spines, leaves, or hair will grow out of the areoles.

Common cactus species include Mammillaria, Rebutia, Parodia, Schlumbergera and Opuntia.

Mammillaria Zeilmanniana - Rosy Pincushion Cactus with pink flowers

Succulents And Cacti Differences

Although we’ve introduced the presence of areoles as the main difference between cacti and succulents, there are several more to look out for.

  • Leaves: Cacti generally don’t have leaves. There are a few varieties that have a handful of leaves, but leaves are not a major feature of cacti. Other types of succulents usually have many leaves and this makes them instantly distinguishable from cacti. As cacti store water in their stems, they have no need for leaves. Other succulents, on the other hand, store water in their leaves and their stems and leaves are more essential to the plant’s health.
  • Areoles: Areoles are the round and small buds found on the surface of cacti stems. The other types of succulents don’t have these, however, so you can be certain that any succulent you find that has areoles is a cactus.
  • Flowers: Both cacti and other types of succulent plants can bloom. The flowers of cactus plants are usually larger, brighter, and more complex than those of other types of succulent plants. Given the harsher environments that cacti grow in, when the opportunity and conditions are right for reproduction, the cactus plant needs to seize the day! Consequently, it needs big showy flowers that pollinators can’t ignore. The flowers of cactus plants can be pollinated by bees, butterflies, and even bats.
  • Fruits: The only succulents that can grow fruits are cactus plants. Not all cacti can produce fruits, but if you have a succulent that does bear fruit, you can be certain it is a cactus plant. The most famous cactus fruit comes from opuntia cacti, commonly known as prickly pear.

Difference between Cactus and Succulent Fairy Castle Cactus

Caring For Cacti

Whichever cactus plant you choose for your home, you can be reassured that it will be low maintenance.

Most cacti have evolved to survive in desert conditions. That means dry, nutrient-poor soils that do not retain water, plus hot, sunny days and cool nights.

Cacti have adapted to these conditions, and if you want your cacti to thrive in your home, your best chances are to replicate these conditions as closely as you can.

That means planting your cactus in a very well-draining potting mix. Look for a cactus-specific soil and pot your plant in a container with drainage holes that allow any excess water to escape.

Water your cactus only when the soil is completely dry, and always use room temperature water to avoid shocking your plant. Water deeply, allowing any excess water to run through the drainage holes. Then allow the soil to dry out before watering again, bearing in mind that that could be 14 days or more. Your cactus will require watering more frequently when it is flowering.

Cacti love bright light. Some prefer full sun, while others prefer indirect light.

Most cacti will not require fertilizer, but if you do want to give your plant a boost, restrict it to its growing season and use a cactus-specific fertilizer and apply sparingly.

Some cacti are surprisingly resilient to cooler temperatures, and some can even be considered cold-hardy, but if you do live in an area that experiences frost, most cacti should be brought inside during winter.

Please note, though, that this care information is general, and you should look at the care needs of your plants individually according to their species.

Caring For Succulents

Succulents are also low-maintenance plants, although they have generally evolved from slightly milder conditions.

They still prefer dry, well-draining soils and do not need much fertilizer. They are drought-tolerant and should only be watered when their soil is completely dry. They should be planted in a succulent-specific soil in a container with drainage holes.

Most types of succulent prefer at least 4-6 hours of bright, indirect sunlight each day. Many cannot tolerate full, direct sun on a regular basis and can even suffer from sunburnt leaves.

In terms of temperatures, most succulents prefer warm temperatures that are neither too hot nor too cold, although some species, such as sempervivum, are cold-hardy.

Again, these are general care guides and you should look at the individual needs of your succulents.

Final Thoughts

So that’s it – you now know the differences between cacti and other succulents. Although all cacti are succulents, not all succulents are cacti.

The main difference is that cacti have areoles – the small, round bumps on their stems – and non-cactus succulents do not.

Regardless of their differences (and we are very inclusive here at succulent hub), they are all considered low-maintenance plants that give life and beauty to your home!


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