Even seasoned indoor gardeners can get confused when it comes to understanding succulents and cacti. They are both popular types of houseplants, yet it’s very easy to misunderstand the terms and the groups of plants they actually represent.
Is a cactus a succulent, or is it the other way around? It’s not vital that you grasp all the botanical details, but knowing which care tips you need to use can hinge on understanding what kind of plant you have in your home.
The Difference Between Succulents and Cacti
The biggest confusion is the assumption we are talking about two separate groups of plants, like comparing cats and dogs. The reality is that cacti is a smaller section within the larger group of succulents. It’s not a matter of cats and dogs, but more like cats and animals. So therefore, all cacti are succulents though there are many kinds of succulents that are not cacti. Just like all cats are animals but there are animals that are not cats.
First, let’s get to know the larger succulent group before tackling the cacti. The most visible trait of a succulent is the thick fleshy body of the plant, or its leaves. Once you know what to look for, you can usually identify a succulent as soon as you see one.
Many succulents are heat-loving plants from the tropics or deserts, but that is not true of the entire group. There are some species that thrive in temperate regions and are even fine through freezing winter weather. This can be why people often don’t have great success with their succulent plants because they care for them all in the same way. The fact that this group is so varied doesn’t help either.
Though they don’t all love the heat, succulents do need a consistently bright light to be healthy. Temperature requirements will depend on the plant, and some will need a significant drop from day to night in order to bloom. Winter is often the dormant period for these plants, when you would water them even less than usual and possibly keep their area a little cooler too.
One of the neat things about non-cactus succulents is that they can be super-easy to propagate. So if you fall in love with a particular plant, you may be able to produce a lot more of them for your houseplant room without having to buy any more. In many cases, you can gently remove one of the fleshy leaves and add a little rooting hormone to the end and just press into a new pot of moist soil until it sprouts. Jade plants work well for this.
Other species of succulents will actually grow little baby plants around their bases, called pups. When you have a nice looking one developing, you can carefully break it free of the main plant and do the same thing as we just mentioned. A little rooting hormone, and just repot for a brand new succulent. Keep the soil moist until the plantlet roots, but once it gets going you’ll want to let things dry out more between waterings. Aloe vera is very easy to reproduce like this, as is the smaller hen and chicks plant.
If you aren’t going to repot the pups, you might have to still remove them to prevent your existing plant from getting too crowded in its container.
As the smaller sub-group, cacti have the same qualities of the overall succulent group but with their own unique traits that make them different from the non-cactus succulent species.
The most obvious feature is that cacti do not have the usual leaves as other plants do, but have evolved thin, hard spines instead. It’s their way of reducing water loss due to their typical desert habitat.
Cactus plants are notorious slow-growers, though some species like the Christmas cactus are a little speedier in growth. Don’t be surprised if you start to wonder if your plant is growing at all. Don’t let that deter you from keeping cactus plants though. When they finally bloom for you, it can be quite a treat and many of these plants will live for decades.
When it comes to taking care of cactus houseplants, you can rely on a few tips and techniques to keep them healthy. They need a full day of bright light and won’t mind if the heat gets high due to the sun. As you can probably guess, you also don’t need to water them as often as most other houseplants. All cacti should be potted in well-draining or even sandy soil, and then given a deep watering when dry through.
While easy propagation is common with other succulents, cacti don’t usually share this trait with the rest of the group. There are a few types of cactus that will sprout pups, like the popular barrel cactus, and you can follow the same basic steps to start up a new plant.
Best Succulents and Cacti for Indoors
Whether you go for a cactus or a non-cactus type of succulent, there are many great options that do well as indoor houseplants. They can be excellent for people who like a relatively hassle-free plant that doesn’t require a lot of daily fuss. Many can be left for days (or even weeks) without any watering. Here are the best types of either group:
- Barrel cactus (Ferocactus sp.)
- Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera sp.)
- Pincushion cactus (Mammillaria sp.)
- Bunny ears cactus (Opuntia microdasys)
- Angel wing cactus (Opunta albispina)
- Bishop’s cap (Astrophytum ornatum)
- Jade plant (Crassula ovata)
- Aloe vera (Aloe vera)
- Hen and chicks (Echeveria sp.)
- Living stones (Lithops sp.)
- Irish rose (Aeonium arboreum)
- Snake plant (Sasevieria trifasciata)
Regardless of which type of succulent you decide to try, you do need to remember that many will eventually outgrow your window sill. Because they are slow-growing, succulents have a reputation for being small. Given enough time, they can become quite huge. You might want to prepare for that.
If you have pets or children in the home, you should take care when choosing your succulents as houseplants. Though they are not really known to be toxic, some can be very sharp to the touch, especially the cacti. Stick with spineless choices like the jade plant, hen and chicks, or an Irish rose to keep things less hazardous around the house.