Skip to Content

Is a Snake Plant a Cactus? What You Need to Know

This article may contain affiliate links. We get paid a small commission from your purchases. More Affiliate Policy

Snake plants (Dracaena trifasciata) and cacti (Cactaceae) have similar and distinct features. Snake plants and cacti are succulent plants that store water in their stems and leaves. Gardeners are often confused by both plants; if you make a purchase, you might take one for the other. It is best to be aware of the plant you are growing to give it the best care possible.

Snake Plants are not cacti; they are succulents from a group called Asparagaceae, and Cacti come from the genus Cactaceae. The main difference is that Snake Plants have proper leaves, while cacti have areoles.

If you want to grow a snake plant, you might be confused about taking the plant for a cactus. In this post, we will be looking at both types of plants and identifying their similarities and differences. Read on and find out why a snake plant is not a cactus.

Why are Snake Plants not Classified as Cactus?

Snake plants and cacti are succulent plants, and there are over 60 different plant families within this group. Succulents have an adaptation feature: they store water in their leaves, roots, and stems. This adaptation is the reason behind the name succulents. Typically, succulents are drought-resistant, and the water stored in the plant tissues is used during the dry periods.

You will also find that some plants classified as succulents are aquatic, and their water reserves serve a different purpose for such plants.

Plants with these features are collectively known as xerophytes, and cactus and snake plants lie in this group, among others. Xerophytes can withstand long periods of drought due to their adaptations. Also, their adaptations go beyond the water storage features to having deep spreading roots, which help reach water and take up water from rare random rains.

It is worth mentioning that both snake plants and cacti are xerophytes. However, not all succulents are xerophytes, and cacti are a sub-category (family) within the succulent group of plants.

Snake Plant is Succulent Plant
Snake Plant is Succulent Plant

Differences Between Cactus and Snake Plants

Cactus are slightly different from other succulent plants, including snake plants. As we are about to discover in this section, certain features distinguish snake plants from cacti:

What are Areoles?

Areoles are distinct features that only exist in cacti, distinguishing a cactus from other succulents such as snake plants. For this reason, you cannot classify a plant as being a cactus unless it has areoles.

Areoles are small rounded cushion-like structures found on the plant’s surface. New growth, such as branches, flowers, spines, hair, and leaves, develops on the areoles.

Due to the purpose, they serve in the plant. Scientists believe that areoles are condensed lateral shoots.

Difference between cactus and snake plants’ leaves

Cactus leaves are very different from those of snake plants. In the cactus, leaves appear as spines that grow on the areoles. These leaves are reduced in size to reduce water loss by the plant. Also, they work as a protective adaptation against animals that would wish to feed on the plant.

On the other hand, Snake plants have actual leaves growing directly from the stem. In snake plants, the leaves are big and fleshy as they are the water storage features of this succulent plant.

While snake plants process food on their leaves, the cactus does so on its stem. Snake plants have their chlorophyll located on their thick foliage, and these thick leaves in snake plants grow in spiral rosettes.

Where do their stems grow?

The stems of these two plants are entirely different. Snake plants have their stems growing under the ground in the form of rhizomes, from where their leaves also develop. These rhizomes serve the purpose of vegetative propagation because new plants develop on them. Additionally, they are used for food storage, dry periods, and feeding new plants.

As this advanced stem runs along the ground, it develops widely spread roots that help the plant obtain as many nutrients and water as possible. Since the plant roots are shallow, the rhizome provides the necessary additional support.

Cactus stems are thick green and fleshy structures, and the stem makes the most significant part of the plant we see. In the cactus, the stem stores water for the plant and uses its chlorophyll to process food through photosynthesis.

Stomata location

Even though the stomata of cactus and snake plants function similarly, they are located in different parts of these plants. You will find the stomata on the plant’s stem in the cactus, while snake plants have them on their leaves.

Remember, cacti do not have actual leaves, and their leaves are more protective features; thus, they don’t serve the same purpose as snake plants.

Similarities of Snake Plants and Cactus

Certain features are also standard in cactus and snake plants, and these features make these plants more confusing. However, having identified the differences between the two, it should be pretty easy to identify one from the other.

Natural habitat

Snake plants and cacti naturally grow in dry areas that hardly receive rainfall. As a result, their adaptive features are meant for survival in these harsh climatic conditions enabling them to store as much water and food as possible.

Since they grow in the same environment, they have similar growing conditions. Both plants are less hardy and require well-drained soils, indirect bright light, and less frequent watering.

There is so much information on the care of snake plants, and I wrote a complete guide, and you can view it here—the ultimate snake plant care guide.

Water storage

Cactus and snake plants store water in their tissues for use during drought. As a result, these plants can survive for long periods without rainfall or watering.

If you have these plants at your home, you will realize they don’t need frequent watering since excess water kills the plant by causing root rot.

CAM Photosynthesis

Snake plants and cacti, among other succulents, utilize a different process of photosynthesis known as Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM). Due to their growing environment, they adapt to their stomata opening during the night.

Naturally, stomata are designed to exchange gases and release excess water by plants through diffusion and transpiration, respectively. As the plants avoid losing water when scorching during the day, their stomata open up at night when they take in CO2 necessary for photosynthesis. At the same time, the plant releases pure oxygen into the environment.

The plants then use the stored CO2 during the day in light to manufacture energy. For this reason, both plants are known and loved for their air purification properties.

If you are a beginner and like to grow your succulents, I wrote an article that helps gardeners like you to help you in your gardening journey; follow the link for more information, 15 Easy to grow succulents for beginners.

A Table of Similarities and Differences

Common featuresDifferences
They are both succulent with water-storage tissues
Snake plants and cacti grow in arid areas.
Both plants require the same growing conditions in light, water, nutrition, and soil properties.
Their stomata open at night when respiration takes place.
Both utilize Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) photosynthesis.  

Cacti have memorable shoots known as areoles.
Snake plants store water in their leaves, while cacti stores water in its stem.
Snake plants have rhizomes for stems, storing food and developing new plants.
Cactus stems have chlorophyll, and the plant uses it for photosynthesis.
Snake plants have actual leaves, while cactus leaves are reduced to spikes.

FAQs about Snake Plants

Conclusion on Is A Snake Plant A Cactus.

Snake plants can be easily confused for cacti as both plants have water storage tissues. They also naturally grow in the same environmental conditions and utilize the exact photosynthesis mechanism.

However, as we saw above, cactus plants have one distinct feature, the presence of areoles. This distinct feature sets cactus apart from other succulents, including snake plants. Some other features and characteristics will help you distinguish the two, such as the shape and size of leaves and stem type.

If you find this article informative, consider subscribing to more gardening posts by completing the form below.