Difference Between Succulents and Cacti

Difference between succulents and cacti is mainly due to the following factors like:
Presence of areole: Areole is a specialized structure from which spines, flowers, or fruits develops. Its presence is the characteristic feature of all the cactuses, while unusual in succulents.
Phenotypic traits: All the cactuses are only having the stem, whereas succulents possess root system, stem and leaves.

A term succulent and cactus sometimes interchangeable with each other, but both can be discriminated by looking onto their phenotypic traits, adaptations, habitat, growth pattern etc. The succulent plant is a large group of drought-resistant and heat-loving plants, which includes 60 families.

Cactaceae is one of the succulent family that includes cactuses bearing a stem without leaf and covered with spines or thorns. Thus, one thing should be kept in mind that cacti can be succulents, but all the succulents cannot be called as cacti.

Content: Succulents Vs Cacti

  1. Comparison Chart
  2. Definition
  3. Key Differences
  4. Similarities
  5. Conclusion

Comparison Chart

DefinitionThese plants comprise root system, stem and fleshy leaves These plants comprise root system and stems only
LeavesIt consists of green, thick and fleshy leaves Absent
SpinesOriginates directly from the leaf cuticleOriginates from specialized structure called as areole
Photosynthetic partLeaves primarily participates in photosynthesisStems of cactus are involved in photosynthesis
AdaptationSucculents are adapted to grow in hot and dry conditions, as leaves, stems and roots can reserve waterIn cacti leaves modify into spines that protects from direct heat, while stems modify to conserve water and participate in photosynthesis
Light exposureSucculents cannot withstand prolonged light exposureCacti requires 4-6 hours of light exposure to grow

Definition of Succulents

Succulents can define as the plant community that stores water in their root system, stems and leaves, which can resist drought conditions. Succulent plants possess thick leaves with a viscous substance inside it. It is derived from the word “succos” that means “full of liquid sap”. The gelatinous mucilage is nothing but a liquid sap that confers the plants better resistance to dry conditions.

Besides, succulents comprise a modified leaf ranges from a shiny, waxy surface to hairs and spines to prevent the plant from losing water too quickly. Succulents exhibit different growth patterns due to various leaf modifications that conserve water. There is one another characteristic property of succulent plants, where these can shrink during droughts and swell when there’s adequate precipitation.

It undergoes CAM (Crassulacean acid metabolism) photosynthesis that mainly takes place during night at a cooler temperature to reduce water loss and uptakes CO2 to facilitate photosynthesis during the day. The capacity of water absorption by the root-system is usually low in extreme draught conditions. Leaves of purslane, juice of aloevera plants, agave plants etc. are the edible succulents that have many health benefits.

varieties of succulents

Growth Conditions

Succulents grow in bright light but cannot live with prolonged warmth or may can get leaf burn from excessive exposure of sunlight. A succulent plant must be planted in a terracotta or clay pot that gives excellent drainage and aeration, so preferable over plastic pots. Excessive watering can lead to root rot that ultimately cause plant death. A succulent plant must be kept away from the extreme temperatures like excessive heat and frost.

Definition of Cacti

Cacti can define as the succulent plants that only have stem, without leaves or branches. A cactus predominately comprises spines, but few are spine-less. The spines are the spotifying feature, because when we talk about cactus, anyone will instantly get an insight of cacti circumferenced with spines.

Areole in cactus

Areoles are most defining feature of the cacti family that distinguishes it from the other succulent plants, which appears as ridges over the surface of cacti from which flowers, hair or spines originates. Thus, if a plant possesses spines but no areoles, then it cannot be considered as cactus.

Cactus undergoes photosynthesis via green and fleshy stem, as it lacks leaves. The stem of the cacti family are thick, hard-walled and either spongy or hollow. The water is preserved inside the stems and it evaporation is reduced by the waxy coating around the stem. Most cacti are native to arid deserts, there are a few varieties that have a better tolerance to cold such as the prickly pear cactus.

varieties of cactus

Growth Conditions

To plant cactus, periodical watering and yearly fertilizing isn’t even compulsory. Unlike succulents, cacti requires exposure of light for atleast 4-6 hours. We must use soil that offers good aeration and drainage system. Excess moisture can cause root rot, but at the time of flowering, cacti should be thoroughly watered. In winter, you should hold off the watering. Cacti survives longer in a dry conditions or warm temperature, but cannot thrive in extreme cold conditions.

Key Differences Between Succulents and Cacti

  1. Succulents is a large group of draught tolerant plants that consists of fleshy leaves, stem and a shallow root system. Cacti are the heat loving and draught tolerant plants that belongs to the Cactaceae family (subcategory of succulent plants), which possesses stem and a shallow root system.
  2. Cactus and succulent plants are not easily identifiable, but the presence of areole (small ridges) on the plant surface distinguishes cacti family from the other succulents.
  3. Succulents have a green, thick fleshy leaves insulated with gelatinous mucilage. In contrast, cactus plants the leaves modifies into spines that protects the plants from heat damage and predators.
  4. Majority of succulents facilitate photosynthesis through the leaves, while in few stem can also participates. In cacti family, stem is the only part that mediates all the cellular activities including photosynthesis too.
  5. Succulents may get leaf burn if exposed for prolonged light exposure. Oppositely, cactus plants require 4-6 hours of light exposure to remain alive.


  • Both succulent and cactus plants possess a shallow root system and grooved stems.
  • The growth of succulents and cacti requires minimal care or maintenance and quite popular in home gardening.
  • Both the plants follow slow growth pattern with varying shapes and sizes.
  • Succulent and cactus belongs to the category of ornamental plants due to their unique appearance.


Therefore, we can conclude that succulents and cacti are adapted to resist in heat and dry climatic conditions. Both succulent and cactus plants cannot be differentiated easily, so the presence of areole on the plant surface generally discriminates the cacti family from the other succulents.

Cactus and succulent plants are generally kept inside the home, as these purify the air we transpire (CO2) and gives off the fresh air. In addition, both the plants are used in the preparation of herbal medication, and as a source of food or fodder etc.

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