What exactly is the distinction between a cactus and a succulent? Yes, they may appear dissimilar, but given that they both thrive in dry conditions and require little water to exist, we shouldn’t be shocked that they are related. But the two plants share much more than their drought endurance and heat tolerance.
What Exactly Is a Succulent?
“Succulents” do not have their own family, but can be found in over 60 plant families. One of these families is the Cactaceae family, which includes cacti. So, while all cacti are succulents, not all succulents are cacti. Cacti are only a subsection of a larger group of plants known as succulents.
Succulents are all water-retaining plants. The term “succulent” derives from the Latin word “sucus,” which means “juice or sap,” and the current term simply means “juicy.” These plants can be found in dry, arid climates where rainfall is scarce, therefore they subsist mostly on dew and mist.
Succulents’ distinctive shapes and colors have helped to make them popular houseplants in recent years.
Structure of a Succulent Plant
Succulents have thick, meaty leaves that store water and nutrients during droughts. To absorb as much moisture as possible, their root systems are often shallow and close to the surface or soil. Many succulents have ribs that allow them to expand in order to hold more water and shrink in order to lessen the surface area exposed to the sun. A variety of internal chemical processes can also assist the plant to retain water.
Another method succulents can retain moisture is a distinguishing trait of cacti. A waxy, fuzzy, or spiny outer surface produces a micro-habitat of dampness, reducing airflow and allowing the plant to stay cool and hydrated. (These spines are also useful for predator protection.) The spines of the cactus grow in clusters on each areole, which is a dark-colored hump on the plant’s surface. The areoles grew as a type of branch off the main plant. Test Garden Tip: Cacti produce spines from their leaves, whereas other plants, such as roses, develop thorns from their stems.) Because they contain little thorns or spines, some succulents are mistaken for cacti. Plants can have these characteristics without being cacti since they lack areoles.
Cacti developed in the Americas 30 to 40 million years ago, and the native plants can now be found from Patagonia to areas of western Canada. Except for Antarctica, succulents are native to every continent on the planet. The plants are quite versatile, and they can even be found as epiphytes, growing on other plants without coming into contact with the earth.
How to Care for Succulents
Succulents (particularly cacti) make wonderful houseplants. They require extremely little maintenance when properly potted and cared for (according to their family and variety). Over-watering and diseases are the most common causes of succulent demise. In general, they prefer to be left alone as long as they have enough sunlight.
While exact care instructions vary per species, the most important rule of thumb for keeping your succulents alive and happy is to make sure the potting mix is absolutely dry before watering. This is normally once a week, although it varies on the drainage, humidity, temperature, and sunlight that each plant receives. If the leaves become soggy or mushy, your plant has been overwatered.
Most succulents and cacti prefer strong light, but not direct sunshine. If you keep them indoors, place them near large, bright windows to obtain as much sunshine as possible. Move them around your house for a few weeks at a time to see how they respond to various levels of sunlight. If your plants aren’t getting enough sunshine, the leaves will extend and the flesh will turn pale.
A well-draining potting mix and container are also required for any cactus or succulent to thrive. Planting mediums commonly used include sand, pumice, perlite, potting soil, or a combination of any of these. Consider filling the container’s bottom with rocks or gravel to allow water to drain away from the roots and soil.
Succulents, like other plants, can reproduce by seeds. They have had to adjust, though, because wind frequently blows the tiny seeds away from appropriate developing places. Propagation is a process of multiplying from a fragment of the parent plant. Succulents can multiply in a variety of ways, which can occur naturally or intentionally by a gardener wishing to diversify their garden.
When a stem or branch from a parent plant is transplanted, it produces its own roots from the cut end within a couple of weeks. Individual leaves can also develop roots if they are not replanted in the soil first. Both of these approaches necessitate a few days of healing (or callousing) in order to shield itself from potential infection from soil and water before the roots can grow. Division, on the other hand, is a form of propagation in which a pup (also known as a plantlet or chick) is produced near the parent plant’s base. After two to three weeks of growth near the parent, the pup is an autonomous small plant that can be transferred.
What Exactly Are Cacti?
Cacti have succulent traits, such as shallow roots, fleshy stems, and waxy leaves, and they store water. As a result, botanists believe that all cacti are succulents, however this is still debated by some.
They are a family of plants that form a collection of plants known as succulents. Cacti come in a variety of shapes and sizes, such as short, thin, spherical, branching, and so on. Succulent cactus are not all cacti. Some are quite distinct from succulents for a variety of reasons.
The Popularity of Cacti and Succulents
Cacti (at least the larger ones) are well known even to those with no interest in horticulture, thanks in part to Hollywood westerns that made cacti famous figures. Succulents have grown in popularity as a result of their low-maintenance care, making them an excellent choice for first-time plant owners.
Cacti and Succulents: What’s the Difference?
Despite their close kinship, cacti and succulents have some significant differences:
- Cactus plants have few or no leaves in general.
- Cacti are distinguishable from other succulents by the circular indentations that run down their stems. These are “areoles,” which are modified buds. Cacti are well recognized for their spines, which sprout from the areoles.
- A large range of non-cactus succulents are native to various parts of the planet. In contrast, practically all cacti are only found in the Americas.
Just as cacti stand out due to their areoles, non-cactus succulents are usually easy to distinguish from other plants once you’ve been introduced to them. Because they must be robust enough to endure harsh conditions and store water in their foliage, most have leaves or modified leaves that, while firm to the touch, have a bloated, juicy appearance (thus the name “succulent”). Succulents differ in size from the small “living stone” (Lithops) to the massive saguaro, which can grow to be 50 feet tall when mature.
While most succulents are not eaten, there are a few edible kinds. Salads can be made with the pleasant, nutritious leaves of purslane (a common lawn weed and succulent). Some individuals also sip the juice of the aloe vera plant.
Succulents that are not cacti include the following:
- Stonecrop Angelina (Sedum rupestre Angelina)
- Stonecrop Autumn Joy (Sedum Autumn Joy)
- Stonecrop Chocolate Drop (Sedum Chocolate Drop)
- Ice plant in purple (Delosperma cooperi)
- Chickens and hens (Sempervivum tectorum)
- Aloe vera gel (Aloe barbadensis)
- Agave (Agave americana)
- Moss blossomed (Portulaca grandiflora)
- Katy the Flamingo (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana)
Cacti and succulents are typically associated with warm environments such as deserts, but certain varieties are exceptionally cold-hardy. In USDA plant hardiness zones 3 to 11, the hens and chicks’ succulent flourishes. The cactus ‘prickly pear’ (Opuntia humifusa) can grow in a wide range of climates from zones 4 to 10.
Prickly pear grows in bunches up to 14 inches tall and nearly twice that wide. It grows into a more prostrate growth habit and has 3-inch yellow blooms. The plant may bloom in the summer or late spring, depending on where you reside. The fruit that gives the plant its name is known as a “tuna.”
Nopalitos, or “pads,” are the flat, bluish-green vegetative sections. The pads look like a jumbled up bundle of prickly beaver tails. Actually, the Opuntia basilaris species is known as the “beavertail cactus.”
Other cacti examples include:
- Cactus with a crown (Rebutia)
- Cactus ball (Parodia)
- Cactus Uebelmannia (Uebelmannia)
You may make your decision now that you understand the similarities and distinctions between cacti and succulents. Choose whether you want to add cactus or succulents to your yard. You can also plant both of them. What matters is that you know how to care for them without mistaking one’s care needs with those of the other.
Keep in mind that while cacti are succulents, not all succulents are cacti. Most cacti and succulents have similar appearances, but only cacti have areolas that distinguish them from other plants. Their care requirements are similar, but there is a variance in water and sunlight requirements. With all of this in mind, you may confidently embark on cacti and succulent gardening adventure.