What Is A Succulent? Where Do They Come From & How To Spot One

Despite their ever-growing popularity one of the most common questions asked about succulents is what are they. Of course, we all know them as tough little drought-tolerant plants but that doesn’t really offer much of an answer as it doesn’t help you identify them.

What is a succulent? The word succulent is typically used to describe any plant that stores water in its leaves or in its stem but it is also sometimes used when referring to a plant that’s native to dry, arid regions. That said people agree that plants with thick, fleshy leaves are succulents.

When I first started growing succulents I had absolutely no idea what they were, other than beautiful plants that didn’t need much care. Being an inquisitive person I wanted to know more about these hardy plants so decided to research exactly what they are and where they come from. Over the years I’ve learned a lot and I’m sure you’ll be as surprised as I was when you discover exactly what a succulent is.

What is a succulent?

When pushed to describe what a succulent is most people will tell you that it’s a plant that has thick leaves and originally comes from the desert. While this might be true of some succulents it’s not exactly a definitive answer to the question of what a succulent actually is. Yes, they do tend to have bulbous leaves and are far more common in dry, arid regions but this isn’t always the case and certainly isn’t true for every succulent.

What might surprise you is that there’s no scientific definition of what a succulent is which means that there’s a lot of individual interpretation involved in defining a succulent. That said though, most people do agree on what characteristics make a plant a succulent, and those characteristics are leaves (and stems), climate, drought tolerance, and the ease with which they can be propagated.

What is a succulent?

Leaves (and stems)

When you consider that the term succulent is derived from the Latin word sucus (which means juice or sap) and that it stores this ‘juice’ or water in its leaves it’s easy to understand why the leaves are one of the defining features of these plants. It’s also why some people refer to succulents as ‘fat plants’.

Their thick, fleshy bulbous leaves (and sometimes their stems) are used to store water and will often feel a little bit squishy if you squeeze them, although I wouldn’t recommend this.


While they can, and do, live in most climate types, as a rule, succulents prefer warmer, drier regions which is why people think they’re often thought to be desert plants. This type of climate has led to them adapting to be able to store water in the plant itself, rather than in the roots.

Drought tolerant 

The dry arid conditions that succulents often call home has led to them being extremely drought tolerant which is one of the characteristics that make them so popular, and again has helped to shape their leaves.


With most non-succulent plants you need to take a cutting from them to propagate a new plant, but with succulents, this is way easier. Yes, you still need to take a cutting but what cut and where you make the cutting can be far more forgiving. The vast majority of succulents can propagate from as little as a leaf, or even part of the leaf in some cases.

What’s in a name?

With the lack of an official botanical definition, it’s safe to say that the term succulent is more of a description than anything else. Much like any tree you decorate at Christmas time is called a Christmas tree. Regardless of whether it’s a fir, pine, or spruce, or even if it’s plastic. Okay so that last example may be a little bit daft but you get what I’m saying.

With this in mind, I think it’s safe to say that a succulent is more of a type than an actual family or taxonomy of specific plants.

What are the characteristics of succulents?

Even the newest of succulent fans will tell you that succulents have thick bulbous leaves but that doesn’t mean all plants with leaves like this are succulents, so what else should you look out for when trying to identify whether a plant is a succulent or not?

Along with their big leaves succulents often have a tough, sometimes waxy, skin (known as farina) that helps them to prevent water from being lost through evaporation. This also helps to reflect a lot of the bright sunlight which again helps them to reduce water loss.

Another characteristic of succulents, although one that you can’t really use to identify them at your local nursery, is the ease with which they can be cared for. Being so drought tolerant they are safe in the hands of even the least green-thumbed people!

A lot of succulents (although not all) also have shallow roots that tend to lie closer to the surface of the soil rather than working their way down into it.

One of the most consistent characteristics, although one that you probably won’t notice (unless you have a microscope of course), is that their pores (known as stomata) open during the night whereas most other plants open during the day. This not only effectively allows the plant to breathe but also means that they absorb carbon dioxide during the night, another reason why they are such a good choice of plant in the bedroom.

Having trouble sleeping? How succulents can help you sleep.

Succulents are often very distinctive plants

Where do succulents come from?

Despite their drought-tolerant natures succulents aren’t only found in deserts, they can in fact be found on every continent except for Antarctica. On top of this, they’re also extremely adaptable plants that can thrive in most places. As well as the stereotypical desert, they are just as happy growing in dry lake beds, sand dunes, forests, high alpine regions, and even tropical climates.

While most succulents are xerophyte (meaning they need very little water and are therefore native to dry arid regions), some are classed as halophytic which means they’re salt tolerant and as such prefer salty, boggy soil.

Is a cactus a succulent?

Is a cactus a succulent

Most people agree that a succulent is any plant that stores water in its leaves or in the stem which means that, by definition, a cactus is a succulent. That said though there are a few differences between the two.

The cactus family is actually one of the largest families of succulents which is why some people think that a cactus and a succulent are the same thing. As such, a cactus is always a succulent but a succulent isn’t always a cactus.

The most noticeable difference between the two is the leaves, or lack of them if we’re talking about cacti. Instead of having leaves though, cacti have areoles instead which non-cacti succulents don’t have. These areoles are small mounds that have spines, hairs, or even flowers growing from them. Some non-cacti succulents, such as some agaves, aloes, and kalanchoes, may have spines or tiny hairs but these grow directly from the plant rather than from areoles.

As a footnote, it’s worth pointing out that while succulents can be found across most of the planet, cacti are native to the New World only.

Is a yucca a succulent?

Officially the jury is still out on whether or not yuccas are succulents but there’s certainly a lot of compelling evidence to suggest they are. To start with yuccas, just like succulents, store water in the plant rather than their roots, the only difference is that they store it in their stems (or canes as they’re known) rather than in their leaves. 

Like a lot of succulents, yuccas are also xerophyte plants too which means they are native drought tolerant and are native to areas that have a dry, arid climate.

The problem with definitively saying they are (or aren’t) succulents is that there’s no official definition to say exactly what a succulent is. That said though the accepted definition is that a succulent is a plant that stores water in its leave or stem which means that yes yuccas are part of the succulent family.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

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