Difference between Cacti, Succulents, and Euphorbia

The Royal Family of the Desert and the Trickster: Cacti, Succulents, and Euphorbia

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Dry desert plants are all the rage these days, and while many may lump all the funky looking vibrant plants together, they actually have some important differences. It’s key to know what’s what so you can end up with the type of plant you want and take good care of it too.


Cacti are a classic feature of desert landscapes and both admired and feared for their sharp features. All cacti are technically considered part of the succulent category, but not all succulents are cacti! Cacti are their own unique botanical family. Their easy care also makes them a great choice for first time owners, as they are low maintenance.

Appearance: No or few leaves, rounded indentations along their stems called “areoles”, spines,

Care: They generally prefer warm, mild, and dry conditions. Plant in a well draining soil and rarely water.


Succulents! The poster plant of millennials and by far the most popular plant of the decade. What plants are the best for hot climates? Which plant tolerates drought and dryness? Succulents reign supreme in their ability to sustain themselves in the toughest conditions.

And technically, they are a broad category of plants whose name comes from the Latin word sucus, meaning ‘juice’, or ‘sap’. And boy, do they look juicy. Appearance: Leaves or modified leaves that, while firm to the touch, have that swollen, juicy look. They come in all shapes, colors, and sizes.

Care: Succulents enjoy warm dry conditions and should never be saturated in water.


Euphorbia is a very large and diverse genus of flowering plants, commonly called spurge, in the spurge family. While they vary widely, some have specially disguised themselves as cacti and succulents.

Common culprits include… Euphorbia horrida

Euphorbia mammillaris

Euphorbia makallensis

Appearance: Euphorbia is a very broad group of plants, and their appearance varies widely.

However, to differentiate them from cacti you should pay attention to the spindles, which will generally be a bit thicker, and to the segments, as cacti are more uniform than Euphorbias tend to be. It can be tough to see the differences with an untrained eye, so when in doubt, ask an expert!

Care: Unlike Succulents and Cacti, Euphorbia CANNOT withstand long periods of drought! You should water them whenever the soil appears dry. They also prefer sunshine-y conditions, and do well as outdoor or bright indoor light plants.

So there you have it! The truth is basically this; that funky desert looking lifeform is either a succulent or it isn’t. Pay attention to the classification you take home from the store and care instructions, or you could end up with a parched Euphorbia or soggy Succulent.

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