Cacti vs. Succulents: Which One?

Succulents and cacti have several key differences we need to be aware of. Throughout this article we will check them out and try to understand what they mean when we grow these plants. So, what is the difference between succulents and cacti?

Telling succulent and cacti apart can be done in several ways. The foolproof formula, however, is to simply remember that all cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti. What this means in practice is that cacti must have a defining characteristic. Such a unique feature, specific only to cacti, are areoles. 

Areoles are basically fleshy protuberances adorned with spines, leaves or flowers. Although at first glance a succulent may look like a cactus, we must ascertain whether they have areoles or they simply have leaves and stems which look like them. 

Credits: Photo by John-Mark Smith and Photo by Angèle Kamp

We will try to consider more features presently, including their main characteristics and what they mean for plant enthusiasts.

The Basics of Succulents and Cacti

Succulents and cacti store water in stems, roots and leaves. There are 60 different plant families which include aloe, sedum, sempervivum and cacti. Cacti are part of succulents and also store water. They come in several shapes and sizes. Both succulents and cacti are ideal for life in harsh, dry environments.

Credits: Photo by John-Mark Smith and Photo by Angèle Kamp


The first thing we must understand about succulents is that they have evolved for life in difficult conditions. This means that succulents usually have fleshy leaves and rather shallow rooting. There is a tremendous variety of succulents in many shapes and sizes.

Such shallow rooting allows them to retrieve as much water as is possible in such harsh environments. The general fleshiness indicates a propensity to accumulate water. Succulents store water in their foliage and this is what gives the plants the appearance of being swollen. These features allow such plants to thrive where others wouldn’t.

Some succulents also have ribs. These allow the succulent to expand and thus be capable of storing more water. Such ribs also allow the succulent to contract and thus diminish the surface area facing solar rays, in order to lessen water loss.    


Cacti are also succulents, as stated earlier. They are plants which have also adapted to life in harsh, dry environments. Shallow roots allow them to capture as much water as possible, as fast as possible. The stems of cacti are quite fleshy too and thus are able to store water. All cacti belong to the Cactaceae family.

Most cacti don’t have leaves, unlike other succulents. Leaves increase the loss of water because of the stomata (or pores on leaves) on their surface. Cacti are therefore extremely successful in surviving in difficult environments, because they have evolved to limit water loss as much as possible.

Telling the Difference Between Succulents and Cacti

Both cacti and succulents, we know, are ideal for dry, hot climates and can store water. Now then, let’s try to get into the detail of things.  

Some basic differences

We pointed out that the basic difference between succulents and cacti are areoles. This is the best way to tell them apart. There are, however, some secondary differences. These secondary features are not foolproof when identifying them (like areoles are), but are quite useful.

Cacti often have little or no leaves at all. Succulents may have leaves. Also, cacti are a species native to the Western hemisphere. Succulents, on the other hand, are native to several different regions throughout the planet.  

Common misconceptions

There are some strange scenarios, when telling succulent and cacti apart can be harder. The first basic misconception is to think that succulents which have thorns or spines are cacti. Sometimes this sole characteristic will have us think, mistakenly, that succulents are cacti.

Some succulents do indeed have thorns and spines, but such features don’t afford them the categorization of cacti. As stated previously, the key feature is areoles. Without them, succulent cannot be correctly defined as cacti. To figure out what plant you are looking at, ask yourself: are these spines and thorns embedded in areoles? If they aren’t any, then we know that we are looking at succulents, plain and simple.

Another mix-up occurs with succulents such as aloe and haworthia. These are frequently confused with cacti because of the shape of their leaves. Agave is also regularly confused because of the way it looks. It’s important that aesthetics don’t fool us; as ever, areoles will help us define this.

In the case of succulents such as euphorbia, things get even harder. Some of these succulents have stems with a cylindrical shape and lots of prickles. These plants can be easily mistaken for cacti. Again, however, the defining factor is areoles. Euphorbia, as similar as they are to cacti, simply lack areoles and are thus succulent and not cacti.

Defining Areoles

Evidently, this creates a question: what exactly are areoles? Areoles are, simply put, fleshy protuberances found in cacti and not in succulents.

The areoles in a cactus are generally adorned with spines. Such a spiny exterior is very helpful in retaining water as it basically creates a surface which diminishes air movement and enhances the capacity of the cactus to survive. Spines are naturally a great protection against predators as well.


Taking Care of Succulent and Cacti 

Both succulent and cacti are great plants for the home. They have great aesthetics and can be a striking plant in and of itself. Some essential tips for taking care of succulents, including cacti, are:

  • In general, leave succulents with an adequate supply of sunlight and just let them be. There’s a caveat to this though. Ideally, sunlight should not hit the plant directly. If they are indoor plants, the best place is usually next to a large window.
  • Make sure that the potting mix has dried completely before providing the plant with new water. Most succulents will need watering once per week. Factors such as humidity, temperature, intensity of sunlight all affect such rate of watering and should be taken into account. Some experts insert chopsticks to determine how dry the soil in a pot is and this can be quite useful.
  • Succulents and cacti require a well-draining potting mixture. Very often this sort of mixture contains things like sand, perlite, pumice and potting soil. A very important consideration is setting a good and efficient grounding to drain roots and soil. Such a draining bedding could be something like rocks or gravel.
  • Succulent and cacti require very little upkeep, evidently. In fact, beginner owners sometimes make the mistake of thinking extra care will improve the plant. Over-watering, for instance, is to be avoided.

Choosing the right succulent 

Acquiring the right succulent or cactus is important. There are some things to take into consideration.

cacti and succulents
Photo by Lena Rose


Larger plants are less delicate and easier to maintain than smaller ones. Smaller succulents are therefore perhaps not ideal starter plants for the inexperienced owner. This is particularly true in the case of succulents other than cacti.

Know how to buy

It seems obvious but it bears repeating: When buying succulents, it’s best to prefer healthy plants. Beware of malformations, scars and a generally wilted appearance. Brighter colors also mean health; paleness is to be avoided.

Choosing the right cactus 

When choosing a cactus, there are some things to take into account.

The right look 

There is a certain look which will point us towards healthy cacti. Some obvious signs of health are a robust trunk and dense spikes. 


When buying cacti, it is useful to bring a box (slightly larger that the pot)  to carry it home. This is particularly useful when we need to move very small cacti, which may easily tumble over. Use newspaper or fabric of some kind to achieve a snug, safe fit. 

Related Questions

My succulents seem soggy and mushy, what’s going on?

You are likely watering them too often. Remember that these plants thrive on scarce watering. Succulent and cacti have basically evolved to be able to live in such restricted environments. Be sure to check the dryness of the soil before proceeding with watering in the future.

Why does my cactus seem pale?

This means it’s not receiving enough sunlight. Ideally, we want to move it around the house for several weeks at a time. This will indicate the best place for it to be placed permanently.

Remember that succulent and cacti need sunlight to thrive, and are at home next to windows. Sunlight should not hit them directly though.

How do succulents ‘propagate’?

Succulents, evidently, have seeds and are able to multiply this way. ‘Propagation’, though, refers to multiplying succulents via a piece of the plant.

Such vegetative propagation occurs in the following way: A stem or offshoot from a succulent is planted and is thus allowed to create its own rooting after some time. In this way this partial succulent becomes a plant altogether.  

Division, on the other hand, occurs when a plant produces a plantlet. Such a mini-plant can be taken to another place or pot after a couple of weeks.

Are succulents edible?

Most succulents are not edible but some of them are. Purslane leaves, for instance, can be eaten. Aloe vera has several uses too and many people create drinks from it, amongst other things.

Why do some succulents look so much like cacti?

This is a very interesting question. The key to understanding why this is, is the concept of convergent evolution.

Convergent evolution causes plants, which are not related, to generate similar traits. This happens because these different plants have to endure the same harsh conditions around them and thus evolve into having the same traits, even though they are separate from one another.

Can succulents grow in rocks?

Yes, but only sort of. Succulents can grow in rocks for a short time, but to really thrive in the long run, they need to be properly planted in soil.

It’s true that succulents can survive in harsh and dry environments but they do have limits. Soil and a modicum of water are important to watch them really prosper.

Are succulents good luck?

Some traditions consider succulents to bring luck to their owners. Feng shui, for one, considers some, like jade, to bring luck with money. Cacti, on the other hand (and indeed other thorny plants) should not be kept inside the house, according to this tradition. 

Can you mix succulents and cacti?

Succulents and cacti can be grown together in the same soil. Note, however, that certain succulents may demand more water than some cacti. Be sure to keep an eye on the dryness of the soil to see if you are overwatering one particular plant, whilst the other is doing fine.

Martin Duran

Hey y'all! My name is Martin Duran and I am from Cali, Colombia. Since 2018 I have been learning about plants and how to take care of them. Here's is my journey... “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” ― John Muir

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