The simple way to think about it is that all cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti. It can be confusing when the two groups have so many similarities and they are marketed to with the same products.
However, there are several differences between a cactus and a succulent when you look at them with an educated eye.
What is a Cactus
The term cactus is, first and foremost, a scientific term used to classify plants. In the common sense however, the term cactus is typically used to describe a succulent that has thorns. While that isn’t a complete definition, it is a start at least.
What is a Succulent
The name succulent simply describes a plant that holds water in its leaves in order to sustain it during a drought. These plants all adapted, whether in desert or jungle climates, to survive in poor conditions with little water on a regular basis.
Main Differences Between a Cactus and a Succulent
Going back to the difference between a cactus and a succulent, there are several differences that you can look for to figure out which one you may have in front of you. Remember, these aren’t perfect rules but they are good guidelines.
Cacti and succulents look different but you care for them the same
In general, most cacti are adapted to a desert climate. These plants are found wherever the climate is dry enough and the soil is poor enough. You will find them in Africa, North America, and parts of Asia.
While there are some physical features that are different between a cactus and a succulent, these are simply guidelines. Many succulents can look like a cactus at a brief glance.
In general, a cactus does not have leaves coming off the central stem. There is a single stem that branches into arms at times. But there will not be anything resembling leaves. This helps the cactus to conserve a ton of water in its main stem.
Typically, there are thorns on a cactus that it uses as a defense mechanism to prevent itself from being eaten. Nothing protects like something prickly after all. These thorns do come in different shapes and types depending on the cactus variety so don’t be surprised by variation.
Most cactus varieties have aereoles that the thorns grow out of. Aereoles are small round bumps or circles on the surface of the cactus. At times, the thorns will only grow out of the aereoles but in some species they grow between them as well.
Similarities Between Cactus and Succulent Care
There are several similarities between cacti and succulents besides the fact that both are green. For example, the two types of plants can be cared for the same way with a little variation.
Watering a cactus or a succulent requires moderate amounts of water with long droughts in the middle. It is sometimes called the “soak and dry” method. Basically, you make sure that the plant gets watered thoroughly and deeply when it is watered. But it is only watered this way when the soil is bone dry.
Because both types of plants, succulents and cacti, prefer to grow in areas that have very little water, you want them both to have well-drained soil. Jungle species typically prefer rocky soil while desert species typically prefer sandy soil. But make sure that the soil doesn’t retain water.
Both succulents and cacti prefer well-drained soil
With only a few exceptions, such as sempervivum, most succulents and cacti are not tolerant to cold. Most prefer temperatures above freezing at the least and optimally above 40 or 50 degrees. If you don’t live in that type of climate, bring them inside in the winter.
Both cactus and succulent varieties are easy to propagate, though there are several different methods of doing so. Most cactus species are propagated with cuttings but you can propagate succulent species with cuttings, leaves, or offsets commonly.
Why do Some Plants that aren’t Cacti Look Similar to Cacti
The plant and animal kingdoms are full of mimics. What better way to protect yourself than to act like you are something that shouldn’t be attacked or eaten? Many succulents that are not, in fact, dangerous, will mimic a cactus that has thorns.
This mimicry protects the succulent from being eaten by animals that know that a plant that looks like that one is dangerous. Of course, when the animal gets closer, it may notice that the plant is not actually dangerous. But it does a fairly decent job at a glance.
Difference Between a Cactus and Succulent for Scientific Classification
As previously stated, the term cactus is a scientific term while the term succulent is not. Cactus actually denotes the family Cactaceae, which contains 127 genera within it.
Succulent is not a scientific term. It simply indicates a plant that holds excess water within its stems and leaves. This feature helps them to withstand long periods of drought. And in fact, the vast majority of succulent deaths are due to overwatering rather than underwatering.
Examples of “Classic” Cacti
When you look for a “classic” example of a cactus, look no further than the Fishhook Barrel cactus. This is a lovely green cactus that has evenly spaced ribs around its entire diameter.
Along each rib, aereoles are also evenly spaced. From each aereole, clusters of straight spines grow out. These spines are designed to protect the cactus and radiate in all directions.
Examples of “Classic” Succulents
The greatest example of a succulent is the Echeveria. This is a small plant that radiates leaves around a central stem. The leaves are fleshy shaped with a slight scoop at the edge followed by a shallow point.
When echeveria get “happy” they can bloom. Typically, these bloom from long stems that grow from the center of the plant and end in clusters of small flowers.
Uses for Cacti and Succulents
Cactus and succulent varieties have been used to decorate homes for hundreds of years. They bring a simple bit of greenery to any space. Because they grow slowly, they also don’t take up very much space.
These plants have also been used over the years as excellent gifts because of what they symbolize. The nature of a cactus is to protect and the nature of succulents is to provide. These two symbolic meanings make them great gift options for just about any occasion.
There are a few key differences between a cactus and a succulent. They definitely look different. However, you can care for succulents and cacti the same and both are easy to keep alive as long as you ignore them. Use these plants to add some easy beauty to any space.