Define Succulent – A Helpful Guide

Many people get confused about what succulents actually are and what makes them different from other houseplants.

Today, we are going to help define succulent in a way that, hopefully, helps you know if you are looking at one.

Common Definitions

I looked up about 10 different sites to find a good definition of succulent. Most said something along the lines of “their leaves hold water”. Here are a few of the “highlights”.

As you can see from the first one, I had to blackout a word.definition from urbandictionary.com

I found this interesting because the left is the American definition and the right is the British, there is a lot more detail listed under the British definition.

American vs British definition

The below was by far the best definition I found but I still don’t believe it is giving the full “picture” of what a succulent is. The reason being, not all succulents have waxy leaves, and while it is true about the stomata (openings on the leaves), you can’t see them with the naked eye.

yourdictionary.com definition

So, You Have A Better Definition?

Well, maybe not a definition, the above are all true but I do have a way to help you identify if you are looking at a succulent or a “regular” houseplant.

All cacti are succulents so if you see something with prickly spines or needles, it is indeed a succulent.

Pictures of Cacti

Other succulents can be a bit more tricky but if any of these traits are visible, you are probably looking at a succulent:

  • Thick or fleshy leaves
  • Waxy leaves
  • “Furry” leaves
  • Rosette shape from thick leaves, not thin petals like on a rose

I do think the main difference that you can see is the leaf thickness. Most houseplants have very thin leaves, the leaves on succulents are thicker (fleshy, sturdier, more substantial – whatever word works for you best).

Variety of succulents

Does It Matter If I Get It Wrong?

Yes, very much so.

Succulents are very hardy plants. They all grow in tough conditions whether it is in the desert, on the side of a cliff, or even in the jungle. They have all adapted to very difficult conditions. Because most succulents are native to the desert, their watering needs and temperature ranges are different from most houseplants. They are easy to care for and slow-growing but there are a few differences in their care (some can be neglected more than others). Also, because succulents are from various parts of the world, knowing where your succulent comes from helps you take care of it as nature would.

See this post on how to care for succulents.

I’m Still Not Sure If It Is A Succulent

I get it, if you are new to succulents or plants in general, it can be hard.

First, most stores (online and in-person) will say if a plant is a succulent. They may not list the specific succulent name but at least that it is a succulent.

Second, the more you look at plants, especially succulents, the better you will get at identifying regular houseplants vs. succulents. Check out Leaf & Clay, and Lula’s Garden for pretty succulents.

Third, I just did a post on plant identification apps, you can view that here. They can be super helpful.

Let’s Wrap It Up

Let me give you “my” definition of succulent here: A plant you can’t resist!

Just kidding, well, kidding about that being the “real” definition anyway.

Here is a definition:

A type of plant that stores water in the leaves which makes the leaves look thick or fleshy. They also can store water in the stems and roots, they are hardy, slow-growing, and available in different colors, shapes, and sizes. All cacti are succulents.

Did I do better at defining “succulent”, hmm, I don’t know, it is hard, but hopefully, I gave you some tools to help you identify them.

Here are additional ones from Amazon to look at.

As always, I appreciate your comments, questions, and observations!

18 Responses

  1. I really like your post about succulents, I might suggest one additional part to your definition. That succulents are typical plants from arid or dry climates which is why their leaves and composition are made to retain water. You wouldnt find too many succulents in a tropical rain forest. 

    Just a thought and I’m thinking a nice little cactus might be a good fit for my desk as I have a northern exposure and tend to water plants on my desk. 

    • Hi Jane,

      I think succulents on desks are a great way to give some peace and calm when working!

      There are a few succulents from the rain forest and their leaves aren’t as thick as others…the Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving Cactus are all jungle succulents. I know, I was shocked too!

      Let me know if I can answer any questions.

      Thanks,

      Lisa

  2. I have always been curious about exactly what makes a plant a succulent myself. Obviously cacti are easily defined, though I try to stay away from those anyway! I tend to stab myself, I am very clumsy anyways, no need to have sharp plants around! It is good to know that most places selling plants will label them as succulent. I am going to look through your other post though about tips to identify succulents, that is very helpful thank you!

    • Hi Travis,

      I know what you mean, I think cacti are beautiful but if the needles are long, I pass on it!

      I’m so glad you are finding the information helpful, please let me know if I can answer any questions.

      Thanks,

      Lisa

  3. Plants can do amazing things especially succulent ones. I think cacti are cool and I have been tempted in the past to get those in little pots to sit on a window sill. The great thing about them, they are a lot easier to care for than other plants. What is your favourite succulent?

    • Hi Eden,

      Give in to temptation, they will probably do well in the window sill!

      Hmmm, I love the zebra plant and jade. Pictures of both are in this post: https://homesucculents.com/the

      I think they are easy, very hardy and really pretty! Plus, you can separate them easily and give as gifts, which I like!

      Let me know if you have any questions.

      Thanks,

      Lisa

  4. Succulents are beautiful! I live in the semi-desert, and there are many giant cacti here. They look so majestic and gorgeous! Then there are the smaller succulents, native and store bought. I just love them, and every time I see one (or more) in a store, I can’t resist them. I usually bring one or two home with me. I’ve seen some with beautiful succulent red leaves, with flowers, you name it. They truly are unique plants. I like your definition best! A plant you can’t resist! I absolutely agree 🙂 

    It’s definitely a bonus that they don’t require so much care. So, not having a green thumb shouldn’t be an obstacle anymore. One can get a succulent, just don’t overwater it 🙂 

    • Hi Christine,

      LOL, I’m glad someone else likes (and understands) my definition! 

      I agree, being easy to care for is a great bonus and your advice is spot on…don’t overwater it!

      Let me know if I can answer any questions and happy succulent shopping!

      Lisa

  5. Hi Lisa,

    Good information on raising succulents.  I have never had one survive very long – mainly due to overwatering.  I know they need less water but never really know how much.  I will refer back to your site for more information.  I live in Southern California and like plants too.  Having a link to your site gives me more confidence in raising this type of plant. I’m likely to try some more of the species again.

    Larry  

    • Hi Larry,

      Oh, you have a lot of great options for plants living in Southern California! So glad this could help. If you have any questions, please let me know.

      Thanks,

      Lisa

  6. Succulents are plants,that are very hardy,as they have their origins, as desert plants growing in very dry conditions,that make the storage of water, a necessity for survival ,and they have spines or thorns, to safe guard them from the depredations, of desert animals.

    For us to recognize them, they have thick leaves,to enable them to store water,that differentiate them from the thin leaves of normal plants.

    Because they are such hardy plants, they are more easy to care for,and are more slow growing,than normal plants,but knowing where your plant originates from,will make it easier for you, to care for it. 

  7. Hello
    I love plants, but I do not have a green thumb.
    Do you think that succulents would be suitable for a beginner? If so, any recommendations on which one to choose.

    I think cacti are unique, but I have small children, so that would not work.
    When I visit people who have plants in their home, it feels like the plants have added a layer of zen that I want to replicate.

  8. Hello, thank you for this informative article.  I have several house plants but having read this article none of them would be classed as succulents.

    If I decided to get a succulent, a cacti for example, are they easy to care for? Do they grow quite large or are they usually fairly small?

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