The name cacti or cactus is used by many to group both cacti and succulents into one.   All cacti are native to the Americas with one exception, Rhipsalis baccifera the common name being mistletoe cactus.  Remembering that all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti, you can begin to distinguish between the two.   There are always exceptions to every rule, but the following identification tips will help you to learn whether you have a cactus or a succulent.

Tips on Identifying a Cactus

  • Spines : Spines are the first feature most people recognize on a cactus.  They vary greatly in size, color and shape.  Spines are not thorns but rather modified leaves in the early stages of development.  Interestingly enough, as the cactus matures and the spines grow, the spines lose their characteristics of leaveWs and only have living cells at the base of the spine.  
  • Flowers : Cactus flowers are unique and complex.  The cacti will form what is called a floral tube on which the flowers form on top.
  • Leaves : Most cacti do not have visible leaves.  Some have evolved thickened and succulent looking leaves to prevent and lessen water loss.
  • Areoles : Areoles are unique to cacti.  They are wooly, hairy looking structures from which the flowers, spines and new growth emerge.

Want to see how well you know the difference between a cactus and a succulent?  Take this quiz.   Cactus or Succulent Quiz

Cactus lover
7/25/2012 06:19:09 am

I love this information. People do not realize the vast variety of these cool plants! Thank you for not forgetting them !

SC Garden Guru
7/25/2012 10:05:41 am

Thanks for the comment Cactus lover! Cactus and succulents are some of the most beautiful and unusual plants there are. Once you educate yourself on how to care for them, you find it's really not that difficult to grow them. I haven't tried growing many cactus, I tend to 'love & care' for them to death!

Lynn Anderson
10/10/2014 10:28:37 am

Hello. I have been growing and collecting succulents, agave, and cactus for about 2 years. This year have learned a lot and wish to expand my collection. Internet purchases are usually not reliable, and would like to know of a show or meeting or seller, that I could visit on the East Coast. Plenty of West Coast shows and clubs are out there. Any info would be welcome. Lynn

7/12/2017 08:48:40 am

Lovely and very helpful information. I have a small topiary tree garden, But I can not cut hedge properly. If you publish about topiary tree article I will so happy.

Thanks for your great effort.

12/6/2020 05:45:12 pm

I really enjoyed your blog thanks for sharing.


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All comments and suggestions are subject to South Carolina conditions and do not necessarily pertain to any other part of the US.