SSC Groups

What are cacti and succulents?

The Cactus and Succulent Plants Specialist Group (CSSG)

What are cacti and succulents?

Cacti and succulents are some of the most popular and charismatic plants appearing in private collections the world over—perhaps even as part of your own. Their unexpectedly beautiful blooms and unusual, characterful shapes and textures have made them a firm horticultural favourite.

What exactly are succulents and cacti?

Succulents are found across the globe in nearly all types of habitat, but most often in arid or semi-arid parts of the world. They’re specially adapted to deal with dry, desert-like conditions, and able to store water in one or more of their organs; their leaves, stems, or roots are often filled with water-storing tissue, and are thus unusually fleshy and enlarged. Succulent families include aloe, agave, and, most famously, cacti (the Cactaceae family). While most all cacti are succulents, not all succulents are cacti; cacti are distinct because of the small round nodules seen speckled across the plant (known as areoles) from which they grow and produce flowers and spines.

What makes them vulnerable?

Our love for cacti has its downsides. These plants are suffering because of their horticultural desirability, which has led to them being illegally collected and traded internationally. Aesthetic appeal aside, many cultures enjoy these spiky species for their economic, societal, and ecological significance worldwide; they are used as sources of food for humans and animals, for shelter and construction materials, and in the production of traditional medicines, drugs, oils, and cosmetics.

Additionally, the parts of the world that host succulents are also facing a high risk of destruction—these areas are some of the first to feel the effects of urban expansion, land-use change for agriculture, building of new infrastructure, mining, grassing, and many other human-induced changes. This destroys the natural habitat for succulent species, many of which live in very small and specialised regions and are thus particularly vulnerable. 

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