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Cactus vs Succulent + Understanding Botanical Names

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Solving those burning questions - Is this a succulent? Is this a cactus? Well, all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. I’m going to break it all down and explain botanical names too. This is going to get very nerdy, so buckle up. 

Botanical names vs Common names

First, a little bit about botany. All plants have their own unique botanical name. These follow a specific structure, like Crassula perforata, or Echeveria setosa. One botanical name only goes with one plant, so with these you can be sure of the exact plant you are talking about. 

Many plants also have one or more common names, like String of Buttons, Ghost Plant, or Lavender Pebbles. One common name can also be attached to multiple different plants. Common names tend to be more memorable and easy to say, but they are not a reliable way to identify a specific plant. 

Plant families

All plants are grouped into families, based on sharing certain characteristics. This is where cactus vs succulent gets real. Cacti are defined by belonging to the Cactus Family of plants (Cactaceae). Succulents are defined by having thick leaves that store water, and they can belong to many different plant families, including the cactus family. So, they are very different types of categories. 

Genus and species

Scientific names are a hierarchy, with each level getting more specific. Even though we have started above with plant families, there are actually several levels of broader categories above that, but they don’t really matter for this discussion. Moving down to Genus and species, we are getting much more specific. They are always together, with Genus first, followed by species. Some genera (plural of genus) you might be familiar with are Echeveria, Crassula, and Haworthia. Within each of these, there are many species, like Echeveria setosa, Echeveria elegans, or Echeveria imbricata. 

Abbreviations and punctuation

If we were talking about plants in the wild, genus and species would usually be enough. But with cultivated plants like many succulents we are familiar with, there is a whole other layer to the naming. This is because many different cultivars or hybrids have been created from plants that originally grew in the wild. Though some of our cultivated succulents would be found just the same way in the wild, many only exist in nurseries and homes. 

Most commonly we will see a cultivar name added onto the genus and species. Most cultivars are hybrids, created by crossing 2 specific plants. They are created and maintained by plant breeders and don’t exist in the wild. Their seeds won’t grow into the exact same cultivar. These can be labeled with the abbreviation ‘cv.’, or just with parentheses. So, both of these would mean the same thing:

Echeveria elegans cv. Alba
Echeveria elegans ‘Alba’

You will see other abbreviations as well, though less often. For example you might see variety (var.), or sub-species (ssp). You might also see something like Echeveria sp., where the ‘sp.’ stands for species, and indicates that the species is unknown. 

In reality, names in cultivation can be a bit messy. Growers and vendors can have plants mis-labeled, and that can carry through to the end customer. Personally I try to confirm all plant IDs for plants I sell, but it can be very difficult to verify for some of them!

How the heck do you pronounce all these names????

Sometimes it can seem overwhelming to see all those letters, especially so many vowels together. Botanical names are written in Botanical Latin, and there is not one set way to pronounce them. The best way is to sound out each letter in a way that sounds comfortable to say. Many plants have more than one common pronunciation too. Here is a great article on this if you want to learn more.

Name changes

Just in case this was all not complicated enough, plants occasionally get reclassified by botanists, when they realize that certain plants are more closely related to a different group than was previously thought, or less related than they thought. In the past, most botanical classifications were made by studying flower and plant structure. However in modern times DNA is giving botanists a lot more information about how plants are related. For example, in 2014 the genus Haworthia was divided into 3 separate genera - Haworthia, Haworthiopsis, and Tulista. When changes like this are made, it can take many many years for the new names to take hold. It’s rare to see a plant in a shop labeled as Haworthiopsis or Tulista, even though those are the official names now. Instead they are usually still labeled as Haworthia. 


If you made it this far in this article, congratulations! I hope you learned something new and helpful for your plant journey. Do you have any other questions that I didn’t answer here? Please let me know on instagram, facebook, or by email.


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