9 Plants You’d Swear Were Cacti, But Aren’t

Cacti are prickly, spiny plants that grow in arid climates. They have thick skin and water-storing organs called succulent tissues that help them cope with dry conditions. Some succulents may look like cacti, but they’re not.
A echeveria pulvinata.

If you are a gardener, chances are you have been fooled by a plant that looks like a cactus but isn’t. The so-called “cactus imposters” come in all shapes and sizes and can be found in gardens worldwide. While they may resemble cacti, these plants are not members of the cactus family (Cactaceae).

So, what plants look like cacti but aren’t? Some common plants that look like cacti but aren’t members of the Cactaceae family include agave, Rhipsalis baccifera, aloe vera, Euphorbia Tirucalli, Kalanchoe Tomentosa, Echeveria, Aeonium haworthii, and Sansevieria Trifasciata. Others include Haworthia Fasciata, Hildewintera Colademononis, and Opuntia Microdasys.

This article discusses these plants in detail and provides information on identifying and caring for them. Read on to learn more.

What Are the Unique Features of Cacti Plants?

Before we dive deep into the plants that look like cacti but aren’t, let’s take a moment to review the characteristics of cacti.

Cacti are succulent plants that mainly store water in their thick stems and leaves to help them survive in hot, arid conditions. They have spines or glochids along their edges, protecting them from predators, and some species have flowers or fruits.

These plants usually have a dense but shallow root system critical in absorbing and storing water. The roots become so dense during the rainy season but usually break away from the main plant during dry periods, which helps the plant conserve water.

A aloe vera plant.
Even if a plant has spines but doesn’t have areoles, it’s not a cactus.

Additionally, the stems and leaves of cacti are covered by an outer layer (epidermis) which protects them from extreme temperatures and helps to reduce water loss.

All cacti plants have areoles, a specialized area from which flowers, spines, and leaves grow. Only true cacti plants have these structures. So, even if a plant has spines but doesn’t have areoles, it’s not a cactus.

Some cacti plants flower at different times of the year. Their flowers often have specialized shapes that attract certain pollinators. These flowers are unique and only last for a maximum of one week before wilting away.

Plants That Look Like Cacti, But Aren’t

Now that we have discussed the unique features of cacti plants, let’s look at the plants that resemble them but are not true cacti.

1. Agave

Often referred to as a “century plant,” agaves (Agave spp.) look like cacti, but they are members of the Asparagaceae family.

These tough, drought-resistant plants are native to the desert and thrive in hot, sunny climates. They come in a wide range of leaf shapes, sizes, and colors, with some species growing up to 20 feet tall!

Agaves also produce beautiful yellow, orange, or red flowers that attract hummingbirds and pollinators.

Agave with water droplets.
To grow healthy agaves, plant them in well-drained soil and position them in a well-lit spot with plenty of sunlight.

These succulents are popular in many home gardens since they require minimal water and care to thrive. To grow healthy agaves, plant them in well-drained soil and position them in a well-lit spot with plenty of sunlight.

2. Rhipsalis Baccifera

Rhipsalis baccifera (also known as mistletoe cactus or Easter cactus) is native to the tropical rainforest and is a popular houseplant in many parts of the world.

This plant has trailing stems that can grow up to 3 feet long, with tiny white flowers and yellow fruits. It’s often confused with cacti because of its spines, but it’s not a true cactus.

This plant prefers bright, indirect light and moist but well-drained soil when grown indoors. Water only when the soil is dry to the touch. Outdoors, Rhipsalis baccifera, can tolerate more direct sunlight and drier soil.

3. Kalanchoe Tomentosa

Kalanchoe tomentosa, also known as panda plant or pussy ears, is a type of succulent that gets its name from the furry white hairs that cover its leaves.

This plant has thick, fleshy leaves like other succulents, but the similarity ends there. Kalanchoe tomentosa does not have any spines or spikes on its leaves.

Kalanchoe Tomentosa in a pot.
Kalanchoe tomentosa is native to Madagascar and grows best in bright indirect light.

Instead, the leaf margins are scalloped and serrated like those of a cat’s paw—hence one of its common names, pussy ears. Kalanchoe tomentosa is native to Madagascar and grows best in bright indirect light.

4. Aloe Vera

Aloe vera (Aloe vera) is a popular succulent with thick green leaves often seen in gardens or potted indoors. This plant is known for its medicinal properties and has been used for thousands of years to treat various skin conditions.

Even though it looks like a cactus (due to its spikey leaves), aloe vera is part of the Liliaceae family and not a true cactus.

Aloe vera prefers a sunny spot and fast-draining soil. Water it only when the soil is dry, as overwatering can cause root rot.

It can also survive in dry and cool conditions, making it a great choice for those who want an easy-to-care-for plant.

The best way to ensure your aloe vera plant thrives is to provide plenty of bright, indirect light and moisten the soil lightly.

5. Selenicereus megalanthus

Selenicereus megalanthus is native to southern Mexico and Honduras. It’s also known as the queen of the night.

Selenicereus megalanthus can grow up to 30 feet tall and 10 feet wide, making it one of the largest succulents. However, despite its size and similarity to other members of the genus Selenicereus, the plant is not a true cactus.

Queen of the night plant.
The succulent prefers full sun and well-drained soil. It must also be watered regularly during the summer months.

Instead, it’s more closely related to epiphytic plants such as Rhipsalis baccifera and Schlumbergera truncata.

Many gardeners love this plant for its unique size and shape, but it is not an easy-care succulent. The succulent prefers full sun and well-drained soil. It must also be watered regularly during the summer months.

Additionally, its large size means it needs much space to grow properly. Pay close attention to its growth habit and prune any branches that are too long.

With the right care, Selenicereus megalanthus can thrive in your garden and add a unique touch to the landscape.

6. Euphorbia Tirucalli

Euphorbia tirucalli, also known as pencil cactus or milk bush, is a type of succulent that gets its name from its pencil-thin stems. Like other succulents, euphorbia tirucalli has thick, fleshy leaves that store water.

However, its unique growth habit sets this plant apart from other succulents. Euphorbia tirucalli grows in an upright tree-like form with branches that can reach up to 20 feet in length.

While it does not have true leaves or needles, the stem segments of this plant are covered in small spines.

Pencil cactus in a pot exposed to sunlight.
Euphorbia tirucalli grows in an upright tree-like form with branches that can reach up to 20 feet in length.

Euphorbia tirucalli is native to tropical Africa and requires bright, indirect light. It prefers well-drained soil and is best watered only when the top inch of soil is completely dry.

Overwatering can cause root rot, so check the soil moisture before you water your plant. This plant is worth considering if you are looking for an unusual succulent with a striking growth habit!

7. Haworthia Fasciata

The haworthia fasciata is a low-growing succulent native to parts of South Africa. Also known as the zebra plant, this small evergreen has thick, pointed leaves covered in white stripes.

The foliage of haworthia fasciata is often compared to that of aloe vera — but unlike its spiky counterpart, haworthia fasciata has smooth leaves without spines.

It can tolerate low light and is fairly drought-tolerant, so it’s a great choice for beginner succulent enthusiasts. Haworthia fasciata prefers well-draining soil and needs to be watered only when the top inch of soil is completely dry.

With its unique foliage and low-maintenance care requirements, haworthia fasciata is an excellent choice for those looking to add an exotic touch to their home gardens.

Keep in mind that overwatering can cause root rot, so be sure to check the soil moisture before watering your plant.

8. Sansevieria Trifasciata

Sansevieria trifasciata, also known as snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue, is another type of succulent that resembles a cactus.

It gets its common name from its long, snake-like leaves that can grow up to 3 feet in length. The leaves of this plant are thick and fleshy like those of a cactus, but they lack the spikes and spines typically associated with cacti.

Sansevieria trifasciata is an easy-to-care-for plant that thrives in low-light conditions. It is a relatively drought-tolerant plant and prefers to be watered when the potting mix is completely dry.

Additionally, it does not need much fertilizer, so it’s an ideal choice for beginner succulent growers.

Whether you display this plant as a single specimen or in a container garden with other low-light plants, Sansevieria trifasciata is sure to make a stunning addition to your home.

9. Echeveria pulvinata

Echeveria pulvinata is native to Mexico. It has an elongated shape and can grow up to six inches long. The leaves are green with red tips, and the plant produces pink flowers. Echeveria pulvinata is often used as an ornamental plant in gardens.

This succulent prefers indirect sunlight and well-drained soil. It should not be overwatered, as too much water can lead to root rot. Water your plant only when the soil is completely dry and avoid getting water on the leaves.

It is important to feed your Echeveria pulvinata regularly with a cactus-specific fertilizer. This will help keep the plant healthy and promote blooming.

Summary

These plants make great additions to any home or garden! Not only do they resemble cacti, but they are also low maintenance and easy to care for.

So, feel free to experiment with any of them. Remember to keep an eye on the soil moisture, watering schedule, and lighting conditions.

Last update on 2024-02-06 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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