Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a cactus and a succulent? Today, we’ll be looking at what they have in common, what sets them apart, and have a little debate over which is better.
All cactuses are succulents, but none all succulents are cactuses.
Cactuses are one branch on the tree of succulents. However, there are plenty of other branches on this tree too.
Unlike other succulents, cactuses have spikes that you wouldn’t want pricking you!
Table of Contents
What is a succulent
Before we compare cactuses to other succulents, we will first need to learn what a succulent is. These kinds of plants are super popular as houseplants because they look beautiful all year round. Most of them require less watering than most other plants.
The cool thing about succulents is that they’re able to store water in their leaves, stems and roots, and as a result, you won’t need to water them too often.
As you might notice from looking at pictures, succulents are primarily green, making them a brilliant plant for improving air quality. If you’re looking for a plant, any succulent will be a good one.
Before we start looking at some of the differences between cactuses and other succulents, we should first look at some of the similarities between the two.
As we’ve already established, most succulents, including house cactuses, require less watering than other succulents. Mainly due to their ability to store water in their leaves, roots and stems.
Being used to warmer climates, they both like sunlight and appreciate it if you keep them in a well-lit room with plenty of natural light. When looking after them, they both have very similar requirements. Well draining soil, consistent temperature, the right sized pot.
Cactuses are spiky
The most obvious difference is that cactuses are spiky. And I know this is the kind of thing that anyone can figure out just by looking at them, but it’s still interesting to notice.
What some of you might not know is that spikes are just leaves in a different form. Living in the desert, cactuses have little need to try and get as much sun as possible. So they have repurposed their leaves into a self-defence tool.
Other succulents will live in environments with some competition for sunlight, so having larger leaves will be of more use.
Succulents have medical benefits
Another difference that it’s worth noticing is that some succulents have more medicinal benefits than cactuses do.
For example, Aloe Vera and Aloe Yucca both contain a thick sap that can soothe aching skin. If you find yourself with a nasty rash, rub a bit of Aloe vera on there, which will alleviate the pain.
But even other succulents, such as snake plants, can remove nasty toxins from the air, such as formaldehyde and benzene.
Cactuses give you fruit
If you’re a fan of fruit, some types of cactuses will be able to provide you with fruit. Some people call it the “Cactus Fruit”, but others prefer the term “Prickly Pear”.
The reason why nature gave us the prickly pear was as a method of reproduction for the cactus. The idea is that the fruit gets eaten by animals such as rabbits or birds. When these animals poop, they plant the seed that will eventually grow into a new cactus which will produce new fruit. Although it should be noted that not all cactuses give you prickly pears.
Cactuses are better
Prickly pears are yummy
And that leads us nicely to the reason why some might prefer cactuses to other succulents. Although prickly pears were created to allow cactuses to reproduce, many have found that the fruit is delicious.
Despite being called a pear, the flavour is closer to that of a kiwi. If you like sweet fruits, this one is incredible. Yes, it is a little more work than an apple, but once you get through all of the obstacles, it will be well worth the effort.
Unfortunately, few people in the west know the joys of a prickly pear.
Cactuses have a wild west look to them
Some may prefer cactuses to other succulents because they have a super cool wild west vibe to them.
When you think of your favourite western movie, you probably picture a sandy desert, a small saloon, in a background surrounded by cactuses.
Who wouldn’t want their home to feel more like the wild west? You don’t need a giant cactus, just a small one in a pot. And your living room will feel like John Wayne could come walking around the corner at any minute.
Having a plant of spikes in your house is just straight-up cool.
Succulents are better
Cactuses have thorns
However, some would argue that other succulents are better than cactuses. The most obvious one being that only a cactus will prick you.
Most of us want to enjoy having our plants. Some may even want to stroke them (we’re not gonna judge). But you can’t do this when the plant is covered in spikes. With other succulents, you can touch them, get close to them, all without worrying about hurting yourself.
This can make reporting much easier. You can just pick them up without worrying about grabbing hold of a load of spikes.
Succulents look Zen
If cactuses have a cool vibe, other succulents have more of a chilled out vibe.
Many people like to keep houseplants because it makes a home seem peaceful and at one with nature. Having a house covered with beautiful but safe plants will mean that the atmosphere is zen and the kind of place you can just kick your feet up, sit back, and look at all of the incredible plants that surround you.
Plants such as the snake plant can transform any room in your house into a jungle. Who wouldn’t want to live in a jungle?
Clear succulent plant
The first interesting succulent is known simply as the “clear succulent plant”. As you can probably tell from the name, this one almost doesn’t look like a plant. It looks more like several drops of water.
Unlike other succulents, this one isn’t green. But see-through.
If you like roses but don’t want to wait until the summer to see them, the rose succulent could be the plant for you. These ones have the shape of roses, but they’re made entirely of leaves and are entirely green.
They’re like roses for succulent lovers.
If you like a bit of fun with your plants, the Trachyandra could be the perfect one for you. Most succulents grow upwards, but this guy prefers to give life a little wiggle.
The wiggly nature of it makes it stand out in any plant collection. I’ve always been a huge fan of plants that go against the typical “plant shape”, as I admire how they go about it their own way.
Talking about weirdly shaped succulents, the Aztekium. It is an incredible plant because rather than just looking like a bunch of leaves, it looks like lots of little green stars all collected together and put into one plant. If you’re lucky and look after it properly, you might even notice some flowers emerging from time to time.
If you travel down to New Mexico, you might be lucky enough to come across the eagle claw. This cactus is known for its super-strong spikes that you wouldn’t want pricking you. But if you see one at the right time of year, you may see a gorgeous pink flower. There is a stunning contrast between the dangerous spikes and the pretty flower.
In South America, the Silver Torch looks soft. It looks like a cactus wearing a woolly jumper. However, looks can be deceiving. Just because it looks soft doesn’t mean you can hug it. If you do that, you may find yourself covered in some very unpleasant spikes.
Most cactuses like to be as big as they can. But not the creeping devil. This guy lives on the ground. So be careful if you’re ever walking barefoot. Although that’s not what’s most impressive. What makes this one stand out is that it moves!
The base will die and rot. Then, the stem will reroot itself. Over time, this causes the whole thing to move. It’s like something out of a horror movie.
Prickly Pear Cactus
And finally, we have the prickly pear cactus. When you see a cactus with round disks, this is a sign that soon it will give delicious fruit. To protect itself from predators, it has massive spikes.
If you want to keep this one, you’re going to have to make sure you live somewhere hot enough and your back garden is big enough.6
The purpose of this article has not been to persuade you that cactuses are the best or the worst succulents. It has merely been to provide you with the information to allow you to make up your own mind.
Whichever you choose to go for, check out some of our other articles for advice on looking after your chosen plant. Just make sure to water (but never overwater) and always ensure it’s getting plenty of sunlight.