Cactus vs. succulents: Is it a Cactus or a Suculent?

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Written By Jim J Neal

Resilient and eye-catching, we’re seeing succulents everywhere right now. But are cacti part of this popular family?

When I was growing up, hedge cactus (AKA Peruvian apple cactus) covered the backyard of my California home. These spindly, silvery-green plants with long, menacing needles had tree-like stalks that towered over me. The plants were between 25 and 30 feet tall, and more than a century old.

One old trunk in particular is seared into my memory because my father carved his name in it with a pocket knife. It read, “Luke 1930,” which would have made my dad about 12 years old when he did it. It’s no surprise that, to this day, I hold a childlike fascination and affection for succulents.

If you love succulents, you’re clearly not alone. Their popularity has been soaring of late, and they’re absolutely everywhere. From garden centers to grocery stores and farmer’s markets, these blimpy and barbed beauties are trending hard.

Resilient and nearly worry-free, succulents are the darlings of the garden world right now. If you’re not hooked yet, read on.

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What Is a Succulent?

A succulent is a type of plant with a high capacity for absorbing and conserving water, which is why it’s extremely adaptable to dry, desert-like conditions.

Defined by plump, fleshy leaves or stems for storing moisture, some of the most common types of succulents include ornamental jade plants, aloe (commonly found in burn salves and skin creams) and agave (blue agave juice goes into tequila).

There are also edible succulents, such as prickly pear and yuca, which are favorite ingredients in Southwestern and Mexican recipes. Rarely are succulents poisonous, although some can cause nausea, vomiting and even hallucinations (peyote) if ingested.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICNU) estimates there are more than 3,000 species of succulents worldwide. And many of these species are capable of outliving you! According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the giant saguaro, found exclusively in the Sonora desert of Mexico and parts of southern Arizona, can live up to 200 years.

Is a Cactus a Succulent?

Yes. A cactus (Cactaceae family) is a succulent. But not all succulents are cacti.

What Is a Cactus and How To Spot It

A cactus is a succulent with the following characteristics:

  • Small round nodules (areoles) where branches, flowers, fruit and needles grow.
  • Spines, glochids (tiny, soft hairs) or razor-sharp spikes that prevent animals and birds from accessing the water supply.
  • Waxy “skin” to retain moisture within the stems.
  • No leaves.
  • Produces flowers and seeds.
  • Shallow root systems allow for the easy absorption of rainwater.
  • Slow-growing.

How To Grow Succulents Indoors

To grow succulents and cacti outdoors generally requires lots of sunshine, warm temperatures and a limited amount of precipitation. A USDA Plant Hardiness Zone of 9 and higher is optimal.

Note: If you reside outside these recommended zones, you can still grow succulents outdoors as long as you protect them from frost damage. Place them in a greenhouse over the winter or bring them indoors when the temperature drops below 40 F.

If you’re interested in cultivating cacti and other succulent plants but live in a frigid climate or where the growing season is short, horticulturist and author Leslie Halleck suggests looking for small LED or fluorescent grow lamps or contained units to support succulent growth indoors.

“By employing supplemental lighting indoors, you can keep a healthy collection of better-looking succulents year-round,” she says.

Pro tip: If you’re growing succulents under lights, be sure to set the plants out in lower light areas of your home for short periods of time. And don’t overwater. That’s a sure-fire way to kill succulents.

Toni DeBellaToni DeBella

Toni DeBella
Toni DeBella is a culture and lifestyle writer, reviews expert and DIY enthusiast covering everything from pests to painting to pool cabanas. Based in a medieval hill town in central Italy, when Toni isn’t documenting her travels around Europe, she’s tending her garden or honing her clay-court tennis game.

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