Cacti & Succulents: The Differences And How To Tell Them Apart

A lot of people talk about cacti and succulents thinking they’re the same thing but while there are a number of similarities there are also a lot of differences, but what are those differences? Is a cactus a succulent and what about succulents, are they part of the cacti family? 

This is something that a lot of gardening newbies often ask which is why I decided to write this article. I wanted to explain exactly what those differences were as well as look at the characteristics they both share. 

The main difference between cacti and succulents is their appearance. Cacti don’t have leaves but instead have needle-like spines while succulent leaves range hugely in shape and size. It’s also worth pointing out that a succulent is any plant that stores water, rather than a specific type of plant.

While both cacti and succulents originated from dry, arid regions and share a preference for being underwatered they don’t have a lot else in common, except of course their ability to store water within their leaves and stems. So what is it that differentiates these two plants, read on to find out.

Cacti and succulents have a lot in common

What is a cactus?

If you ask anybody what a cactus is chances are they’ll tell you it’s a small spiky plant and when you consider the name ‘cactus’ is derived from the Ancient Greek word for spiny plant, kaktos, it’s easy to see why. While they may not necessarily be small (some can reach over 40 feet),* they most definitely are somewhat spiky in nature. * [source]

Spikes aside the other distinguishing features of the cactus are its bulbous stems that are used to store water and the small, cushion-like mounds only the stem. Known as ‘areoles’ these mounds are what remains of the leaves they once had and are now used to produce the spikes.

Is a cactus a succulent?

Being a native of desert regions cacti have evolved to be able to store what little water they can find in their stems or trunks. A characteristic that, by definition means they are without doubt succulents but does that mean all cacti are succulents? Well, to put it bluntly, yes it does!

That said though just because a cactus is a succulent doesn’t automatically mean that a succulent is a cactus, but more on this later.

What is a succulent?

It might be pretty easy to describe what a cactus is but unfortunately the same can’t be said for succulents, something that’s not helped by gardeners and scientists disagreeing with what the term succulent actually means.

Instead, the best way of describing a succulent is to say that it’s any plant that’s capable of storing water. Using this definition means that plants such as yuccas can also be classed as succulents, something that a lot of people will disagree with.

Want to know more about what a succulent is? What is a succulent and how to stop one.

Is a succulent a cactus?

While all cacti are part of a definitive botanical family group succulents, on the other hand, don’t belong to any particular scientific family. Instead, the term succulent is generally used to describe any plant that stores water in its leaves, stem, or even in its roots.

That means that succulents aren’t necessarily always cacti and can, in fact, belong to any one of around 60 different plant families.

Cacti are succulents

What are the differences between cacti and succulents?

While the most noticeable difference between a cactus and a succulent may well be their appearance, there are quite a few other differences too. The table below summarizes those differences.

Botanical familyCactaceaeA group of approx. 60 different plant families
AppearanceCome in a range of shapes and sizes
Needle-like spines or small hairs Don’t have leaves
Have areoles
Shape and size can range widely
Leaves have a rubbery or waxy texture
Some have spines
LeavesDon’t have leaves
Have spines instead of leaves
Leaves are fleshy or waxy
Can have spines
FlowersLarge colorful flowersColourful flowers in a range of shapes and sizes
StemsThick stems that store waterFleshy but can also be woody
AreolesUnique to cactiNot present
UsesHouse/ornament plants
Natural fencing
House/ornamental plants Occasionally for food
OriginsThe AmericasEvery continent except Antarctica
The differences between cacti and succulents


To put it simply, a cactus is always a succulent but a succulent isn’t always a cactus. While this might sound confusing and contradictory at first it’s because the cactus comes from a defined botanical family while there’s no official (or scientifically recognized) definition for a succulent. Instead, a succulent can be any plant that stores water in its stem, leaves, or even roots.


While their appearance is without doubt the most easily recognised difference it can also lead to confusion sometimes. The reason I say this is because some succulents (such as aloes and agaves) do have spines along the edges of their leaves, something that can sometimes lead to them being mistakenly called cacti.

The two main visual differences between cacti and succulents are areoles and leaves. A defining feature of cacti (and something that sets them apart from their succulents) is the presence of areoles. These cushion-like mounds are in place of leaves and are only found on cacti. Succulents, on the other hand, didn’t evolve in the extreme conditions that cacti did so have kept their leaves.

While cacti don't have leaves they do have areoles which produce needle like spines
Cacti have areoles and spikes instead of leaves
While succulents may have spines but they're not cacti
Succulents can have spines but don’t have areoles


When it comes to their popularity there isn’t really any difference between the two, they’re both loved by new and old plant owners alike and are often given as gifts. Their low maintenance needs make them a common sight in many households around the world.


There’s no doubt that both cacti and succulents make attractive houseplants that can be grown both indoors and outside (depending on the hardiness of the plant) but this is generally where the similarities in their use ends.

While succulents are largely only grown outside for decoration, cacti are, of course, grown for decoration but can (and are) also be grown as natural barriers. These cactus fences are particularly popular in Mexico but can also be found across the Americas and in Australia.

Another difference in the use of cacti compared to succulents is in their use as psychoactive drugs* as well as for other medicinal purposes. While some varieties of aloe (such as aloe vera) do have medicinal benefits this isn’t something that succulents are typically used for. The same goes for food, yes the agave (which is used in the production of tequila) and salicornia (a herb) are eaten this isn’t as common with succulents as it is with cacti. *[source]

Cacti are often used for natural fences


While cacti are often thought of as a Hollywood symbol of the old West (at least the tall ones are) this doesn’t give any indication of their true origins, nor does it give any clues as to the origins of succulents.

As you can probably imagine, both cacti and succulents come from desert regions, but this only hints at where they originated from. Having evolved to survive without the need for leaves, cacti are native to the driest, most inhospitable regions of the planet. While they are more commonly found in (and originally came from) all areas of the Americas and West Indies, they can happily grow in the hottest, driest place on Earth, the Atacama desert.

Succulents, on the other hand, have grown natively in pretty much every single continent of the planet, except for Antarctica. What might also surprise you is that they’re not only found in dry, arid regions. Instead, they’ve also been found growing in jungles, on mountains, and even in rainforests* (no I don’t understand it either but it is true!). *[source]

What are the similarities between cacti and succulents?

I know that I’ve focused on the differences between the two plants in this article but I can’t really leave it there without at least mentioning the traits that they share and have in common. It goes without saying that they share the ability to store water (regardless of whether in their stems or leaves) but what other similarities do they share?

As well as being xeriscapes (meaning they prefer to have less water), they both also produce beautifully colored flowers that range in size, color, and even the frequency with which they’re produced.

Cacti and succulents produce beautiful, colourful flowers

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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