Cacti and succulents are closely related, though they’re not the same thing as some people believe. It’s scientifically incorrect to use the word succulents and cacti interchangeably. Well, some cacti plants are part of succulents. However, not all cacti are succulents, and many succulents are not cacti?
So, what’s the difference between cacti and succulents? According to botanists, all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Some succulents are often mistaken for cacti because they have spines. However, most of these succulents still have characteristics that disqualify them from being called cacti. One of the distinguishing factors between succulents and cactus is the areoles. Any succulent that doesn’t have the areoles is not cacti.
Do you want to learn other differences that separate cacti from succulents so you can easily distinguish them? Let’s have a look at all that in this article.
What Are Succulents?
Succulents have unique adaptability characteristics such as storing water on their leaves, stems, and roots. These plants are available in up to 60 different families. The common ones include cacti, sedum, aloe, sempervivum, and haworthia.
So, it’s obvious most succulents don’t belong to the same plant family. They have different visual, genetic, and geographical characteristics. But all of them form a single family called succulents.
What Are Cacti?
Cacti display the characteristics of succulents, including water storage characteristics like shallow roots, fleshy stems, and waxy leaves. For this reason, botanists believe that all cacti are succulents, although some still dispute this fact.
They are a family of plants that form a collection of plants known as succulents. Cacti come in different shapes and sizes, ranging from short, thin, round, branched, etc. However, not all cacti are succulents. Some are pretty different from succulents due to a variety of reasons.
Cacti Have Areoles
For a succulent to be considered cacti, it must display the presence of areoles, which all cacti display. The areolas are small, round, and cushioned flesh where the plant’s leaves, spines, hair, and flowers grow. Some giant cacti plants like saguaro have branches that grow from the areoles.
The areoles have successfully managed to separate cactus from other plants because others don’t have them. This has made it easy to distinguish cacti from other plants because all cacti have this feature. But this is not the only thing that will distinguish cacti from succulents.
Cacti Don’t Have Leaves
Apart from the areoles, another physical characteristic that differentiates the two is the presence of leaves. The majority of cacti plants don’t have leaves. This is because the presence of leaves makes these plants lose a lot of moisture that they can’t afford to lose, given the conditions they grow in. Cacti grow in environments that experience too much sun and with very rare rainfall. If it rains, they collect as much water as possible, which they store for future use.
Having leaves will make water storage hard because most of the moisture escapes through the opening on the surface of the leaves called the stomata. The absence of the traditional leaves makes it easy for the plants to survive in the harsh desert.
So, while most cacti don’t have leaves, the majority of succulents do have them. The leaves of succulents are thick and have a gel-like substance inside. The name succulent originated from the term succulentus. This term means full of juice. The juice makes these plants survive the tough seasons without precipitation. They won’t wither away as other plants do.
The leaves of succulents also have a surface texture that has evolved in a way that prevents quick water loss. Their textures range from shiny, waxy surfaces, spines and hairs.
Cacti and Succulents Similarities
Since many people confuse succulents and cacti, it’s worth looking at how the two plants are related first. It’s true that some cacti and succulents look very identical and share similar characteristics. Both showcase the presence of spines and cylindrical shapes. For instance, euphorbia and cacti look alike but are not the same genus.
Why the similarity? The answer to this question lies in the term convergent evolution. This is an evolutionary process that makes certain animals and plants look the same. This usually happens to plants that live in environments with similar conditions. They might not originate from the same place, but since the conditions are similar, they’ll still display similar traits.
Cacti originate from the deserts of America. There are also quite a number of succulents that originate from different deserts across the globe. This means some succulents have faced the same environmental conditions as that of cacti. They have endured tough weather conditions like intense heat, lack of water, strong winds, and attacks by predators.
Due to all these hardships, such plants develop similar adaptations to cope and survive. Such adaptations include cylindrical shapes that enable them to store water and spines that protect them from predators.
These plants develop similar adaptations that make it difficult to distinguish one from the other. But if you’re keen enough and determined to distinguish the two, you’ll pick out a few things that differentiate them.
There are plants that have been greatly confused for cacti. These plants are some of the succulents that look exactly like cacti and share similar characteristics. A good example is Euphorbia Horrida. This plant is a succulent that is not a cactus but looks exactly like one.
This plant has spiky thorns and bumps, which makes it tricky to differentiate it from cacti. The plant evolved to withstand the African climate, which is warm and dry. These conditions have made this succulent look and behave exactly like most cacti species that grow under similar conditions.
Cactus vs. Succulents: FAQ
Where are succulents from?
Succulents grow all over the world as long as they get their natural habitats. The plants have a wide range of habitats and mostly adapt to environments that other plants may find uninhabitable. Most of them grow in dry areas, semi-deserts, and deserts. Others are found in rainforests and mountainous regions.
These plants adapt to conditions that are too harsh for other plants to survive. They survive in high temperatures with little to no rainfall. The plants are highly adaptable and hardy. There are other succulent types that grow in the coastal areas and dry lakes. These areas have extreme levels of dissolved minerals that are detrimental to other plants.
Why do you need to distinguish cactus from succulents?
If you’re a gardener or aspiring to be one, knowing different plants and their characteristics is important. Knowing the difference between cactus and succulents will help you when buying your seedlings. You’ll avoid getting tricked into buying the type of plant you didn’t intend to buy.
Knowing the difference between the two will also help you when it comes to blooming. Cacti flowers are flamboyant and lavishly beautiful. They come in a variety of impressive colors that make them worth everyone’s attention. If you’re going to buy cactus, you’ll hope it blooms. You don’t want the feeling of waiting for your cactus to bloom only to realize it’s not going to because it’s not a cactus plant.
Can you plant cacti and succulents together?
How you pot your cacti and succulents will determine whether you’ll succeed or not. Well, both plants adapt to dry environments and can survive long periods without moisture. Both of them require similar potting soils and need bright light.
However, you must understand that cacti still need less watering than most succulents. You must keep this in mind if you need to plant them together. Please make sure your cactus doesn’t receive more water than it needs, and succulents don’t get less water than it needs for its growth.
Now that you understand the similarities and differences between cacti and succulents, you can make your choice. Decide whether you prefer introducing cacti or succulents to your garden. You can also plant them both. What’s important is that you know how to take care of them without confusing one’s care needs for the other.
Remember that cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Most cacti and succulents look the same, but only cacti have areolas, which differentiate them from other plants. Their care needs are also the same, but there’s a difference in water and sunlight requirements. With all these in mind, you can confidently become a cacti and succulent gardener.