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David Beaulieu

What's the Difference Between Cacti and Succulents?

By January 20, 2013

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When we use the phrase, "cacti and succulents," it's a bit of a misnomer. The phrase seems to imply that we're talking about two distinct groups on a roughly equal footing, as when we say, for example, "music and literature."

But all cacti are, in fact, considered to be succulents. That is, succulents are the overarching category; cacti are a sub-group of that category. And that's the most salient difference between cacti and succulents. So why does popular convention persist in using the misleading phrase "cacti and succulents?"

I suppose it's attributable, in part, to the fame of cacti (the bigger ones, at least). Westerns turned cacti into iconic figures. The cacti then became so big for their breeches that they demanded equal billing with the plant category to which they belong. Maybe it also has something to do with the diversity of the succulent category. Somehow, it doesn't seem right that the lone word "succulents" should cover a whole group of plants ranging from the tiny "living stone" (genus Lithops) to the giant saguaro.

View my pictures of cacti and succulents (including those in the Agave family) to determine if any of these extraordinary plants might prove useful to you as:

  • Plants for use in sunny, dry areas
  • Subjects for your terrarium
  • Or simply as relief from the bleakness of winter!

View photo gallery: Cacti and Succulents


January 20, 2013 at 2:27 pm
(1) Jeavonna Chapman says:

I love succulents. I have several in my office. Whenever someone ask “what’s that?” – they get the lecture about all cacti being succulents but not vice versa. I also explain what makes a cacti different. I have several euphorbias (personal favorites) which illustrate that difference between a spiny succulent and a cacti. I have several cacti and insist that they note the difference in the spine arrangements on the cacti versus the euphorbia. Suprisingly, I get a lot of inquiries and often have people dragging others in to show them the difference. Yes, I am the plant lady at my job.

January 21, 2013 at 8:39 am
(2) landscaping says:

Thank you for your comment, Jeavonna. To stimulate further discussion of the difference between a euphorbia and a cactus, we can remark upon the oft-repeated observation that the flowers on a cactus tend to be big and beautiful (definitely worth the wait we often endure to witness them!), while those on a euphorbia tend to be insignificant. Then to really blow people’s minds, point out to them that poinsettia plants are euphorbias — and watch the wheels start turning. “But,” they may well object, “poinsettias have nice, big, showy flowers.” Then conclude your plant lecture for the day by noting that the big, showy plant part that makes poinsettias appealing is actually a bract, not a flower (the true flower is a tiny thing).

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