Are Cacti Succulents? How To Tell The Difference

Cacti are undoubtedly some of the most fascinating plants in the world, admired for their unique appearance and ability to thrive in challenging environments. These captivating plants belong to a group of plants known as succulents, which are characterized by their fleshy leaves, thick skin, and the capacity to store water for extended periods, helping them survive through times of drought. But are cacti truly succulents? In this guide, we will explore the relationship between cacti and succulents, uncover the botanical families they belong to, and shed light on the distinctive features that set them apart.

Cacti and succulents plants on a windowsill

What Are Succulents?

Succulents are a broad group of plants that have adapted to arid and semi-arid environments. They have developed unique mechanisms to store water, allowing them to survive in regions where water is scarce. These plants come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and forms, making them highly popular among gardeners and plant enthusiasts. The various types of succulents are diverse, including plants like Aloe, Agave, Echeveria, and, of course, cacti.

Succulents are defined by specific characteristics that set them apart from other types of plants. These features include:

  1. Fleshy Leaves: Succulents often have fleshy leaves or stems that are adapted to store water. The fleshy tissues act as reservoirs, enabling the plant to endure dry spells.
  2. Thick Skin: Many succulents have a thick, waxy skin or cuticle on their leaves or stems, which minimizes water loss due to evaporation.
  3. Water Storage: Succulents are adept at storing water in specialized cells. These water storage capacities make them resilient in drought conditions.
  4. Tolerance to Drought: Succulents can endure prolonged periods of drought, thanks to their water-saving mechanisms.

Now that we have a foundation in understanding succulents, let’s address the central question of this blog post: Are cacti succulents?

Are Cacti Succulents?

Cacti are indeed a type of succulent, and their distinct characteristics make them stand out within the succulent group. These remarkable plants have evolved to thrive in arid and semi-arid regions, and their unique features set them apart as a fascinating subgroup of succulents. 

The Botanical Families of Cacti

Cacti belong to the family Cactaceae, a unique family that consists of over 1,750 species. These plants are primarily native to the Americas, with the majority found in North, Central, and South America. However, some species have been introduced to other parts of the world, where they have adapted to local conditions.

Within the Cactaceae family, cacti are organized into numerous types, each with its own distinct characteristics. Notable types of cacti include:

  1. Opuntia: Known as the prickly pear cactus, Opuntia species are recognizable by their flat, paddle-shaped stems covered in glochids, tiny, hair-like spines.
  2. Echinocactus: These cacti are often referred to as “barrel cacti” due to their spherical shape and ribbed appearance.
  3. Ferocactus: Barrel-shaped as well, ferocacti are characterized by their prominent ribs and spines.
  4. Mammillaria: Mammillaria cacti are smaller in size and usually globular, with densely clustered spines.

Distinctive Features of Cacti

What makes cacti stand out as succulents are their remarkable adaptations to arid environments. These features not only define cacti as succulents but also make them some of the most fascinating plants on the planet.

Fleshy Stems

Cacti have fleshy stems rather than fleshy leaves, which is one of the key distinctions from many other succulents. The stem of a cactus is its primary water storage organ. In fact, the leaves of some cacti have evolved into spines, reducing surface area and minimizing water loss. This adaptation allows cacti to maximize their water storage capacity.

Modified Leaves

While cacti do not have the typical fleshy leaves often associated with succulents, they do have modified leaves. These modified leaves have evolved into spines. The spines serve various purposes, including protecting the plant from herbivores and providing some shade to the stem. They also help reduce water loss by decreasing the surface area exposed to the harsh sun and wind.

Water Storage

Cacti are exceptional in their ability to store water in their stems. The inner tissues of a cactus stem contain a specialized water-storage tissue called parenchyma. This tissue can swell and shrink as water levels change, allowing the cactus to survive extended periods of drought. The ability to efficiently store water is a hallmark of succulents, and cacti excel in this regard.

Tolerance to Drought

Cacti’s tolerance to drought is legendary. They can endure long periods without rainfall, relying on the water reserves stored in their stems. This survival strategy enables cacti to thrive in some of the harshest desert environments, where other plants would wither and die. During times of drought, cacti can continue photosynthesizing at night when temperatures are cooler and humidity is higher, further conserving precious water resources.

Are All Succulents Cacti?

Now that we’ve established that cacti are indeed succulents, it’s important to clarify that not all succulents are cacti. While cacti are a subset of succulents, the reverse is not true. There are many other succulent plants that do not belong to the Cactaceae family. Some common examples of non-cacti succulents include:

  1. Aloe: Aloe plants, known for their medicinal gel, are succulents with fleshy leaves arranged in a rosette shape.
  2. Agave: Agave plants are recognizable by their long, pointed leaves and are used in the production of tequila.
  3. Echeveria: These rosette-shaped succulents come in a variety of colors and are popular choices for ornamental gardening.
  4. Sedum: Sedum, also known as stonecrop, are low-growing succulents that form ground covers.

These succulents exhibit the hallmark characteristics of succulents, such as fleshy leaves and water-storing adaptations, but they are not classified as cacti. This diversity of succulent plants adds to the allure of succulent gardening and allows enthusiasts to explore various species with unique attributes.

The Beauty of Cacti

Beyond their succulent status, cacti are celebrated for their striking beauty. Their aesthetic appeal comes from their remarkable adaptations, distinctive shapes, and often vivid flowers. Let’s explore why cacti are considered beautiful plants.

Unique Shapes

Cacti exhibit a wide range of shapes, from the towering saguaro cactus with its majestic arms to the whimsical, globular forms of the mammillaria. The variety in shape makes cacti visually intriguing and lends itself well to ornamental gardening.

Colorful and Unusual Flowers

Many cacti produce breathtaking flowers that can be highly colorful and unusual in form. The contrast between their spiny stems and delicate, often vivid blooms creates a captivating spectacle. For example, the Echinopsis cactus produces large, showy flowers that can be white, pink, or various shades of red and orange.

Low Maintenance

Cacti are known for their low maintenance requirements. They are hardy plants that can thrive in conditions that would be challenging for other species. This resilience, combined with their aesthetic appeal, makes them a popular choice for both novice and experienced gardeners.

Unique Gardening Opportunities

Cacti can be grown in various gardening scenarios, from desert-themed gardens to indoor succulent collections. Their adaptability allows for creative landscaping and gardening possibilities, making them a favorite among horticulturists.

The Role of Cacti in Ecosystems

Cacti are not only beautiful and adaptable but also play crucial roles in their ecosystems. Let’s delve into their ecological significance.

Wildlife Habitat

The presence of cacti supports a variety of wildlife, including birds and insects. Birds often build nests in the protective arms of large cacti, while insects, such as bees, are attracted to the cactus flowers, contributing to pollination.

Soil Stabilization

Cacti help prevent soil erosion in arid regions. Their extensive root systems anchor the soil, reducing the risk of desertification and land degradation.

Water Source

Cacti can serve as a vital water source for both wildlife and humans in arid regions. Some cacti store substantial amounts of water, and indigenous people have traditionally harvested this water for consumption.


In conclusion, cacti are indeed succulents. They belong to the botanical family Cactaceae, characterized by their fleshy stems, water storage capabilities, and adaptations to thrive in times of drought. While not all succulents are cacti, cacti exemplify the essence of succulent plants with their unique modifications, diverse appearances, and beautiful flowers. Their contribution to ecosystems and their ease of cultivation further solidify their place as some of the most remarkable plants on our planet.

Cacti have earned their reputation not only as succulents but also as beautiful, enduring, and ecologically significant organisms. Whether you’re a passionate gardener, an admirer of unique plant life, or someone interested in arid ecosystems, cacti are worth exploring and celebrating for their captivating beauty and incredible adaptations to challenging environments. As we continue to appreciate and study these remarkable plants, we gain valuable insights into nature’s ability to thrive in the harshest conditions and adapt to the challenges of our ever-changing world.

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