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University of Minnesota Extension

Cacti and succulents

Quick facts

  • Succulents have thick fleshy leaves or stems.
  • They require only modest amounts of water and fertilizer, but do need abundant light.
  • Most cacti and succulents grow in well-drained sandy soil.
  • They are well adapted to living in houses where the relative humidity is low.
  • Pests are a rare concern for cacti and succulents.
  • Stem cuttings are an easy way to propagate cacti and succulents.
Four green cacti with white needles growing in sandy garden.

Houseplant enthusiasts look for different and more exotic specimens to add to their collections. Beginners and experts can find many good choices among the cacti and succulents.

The term succulent refers to a broad, loose category of plants, including cacti, which have developed thick fleshy leaves or stems. These serve as water storage organs to insure survival under arid conditions.

Succulents are found worldwide. Besides cacti, they include many familiar plants:

  • jade plant (Crassula arborescens)
  • snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata)
  • medicine plant (Aloe barbadensis)
  • century plant (Agave americana)
  • flowering Kalanchoes (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) and the sedums (Sedum sp.), both sold as gift plants
  • hens and chicks (Sempervivum sp.), common in the perennial garden

Cacti characteristics

  • The cactus family has nearly 2,000 species, and with one exception all are native to the Americas.
  • They range from the Arctic Circle to the mountains of Chile, but are most common in the southwestern United States and Mexico.
  • Cacti can be tall and lanky or squat and spherical, frequently without any branches and almost always without leaves.
    • These shapes result in a large proportion of internal tissue to external surface area. This reduces the amount of moisture that is lost through the plant itself.
  • They often have scales or spines ranging from microscopically small to wickedly large and barbed.
    • These protect against predators and are thought to aid the plant in withstanding the sun’s heat.

Growing cacti and succulents

Succulents require only modest amounts of water and fertilizer, but do need lots of light.


Deborah L. Brown

Reviewed in 2018

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