Cactus vs Euphorbia (Here’s the difference!)

header image for article titled "what is the difference between a cactus and euphorbia. text on the left hand side with images of a cactus and euphorbia on the right

Cacti and Euphorbia are both loveable prickly plants that thrive in hot dry environments and I don’t mind admitting.. they can be quite difficult to tell apart.

With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of 4 subtle differences so that you’ll easily be able to tell the difference and I’ll walk you through them in this article.

I first realized that Euphorbia wasn’t a cactus when I found some white marks running up the trunk of one of my plants.

I frantically posted to a couple of dedicated Cacti Facebook forums but my posts didn’t get approved. I couldn’t figure out why.

Instead, I turned to Google and decided to identify my plant at the same time which I assumed what a cactus.

Turns out it wasn’t a cactus at all, it was a euphoria!

Here’s everything I learned from my research;

Are Euphorbia in the Cactus Family?

Out of the approx 2,000 species of euphorbia, around 1200 of them are succulents and none are members of the cacti family.

While that might seem like our first major difference, it isn’t.

You see, cacti are also succulents (but not all cacti are succulents)

As promised, let’s take a look at how to tell them apart;

4 Subtle Differences Between Cacti and Euphorbia

1) Cacti have areoles (our biggest clue!)

This is the first thing I look for when trying to differentiate.

Cacti have needle-like spines that grow from areoles.

a potted cactus with a closeup of areoles where spines and flowers grow from.
Spikey spines & flowers grow from areoles on cacti

Areoles are bumps on the body of the cactus that are usually a different color from the rest of the skin.

On the other hand, a euphorbia doesn’t have areolas. Instead, thorns grow in pairs directly from the skin usually in a ‘v’ pattern.#

Euphorbia enopla with thorns growing in pairs directly out of the skin
Euphorbia have thorns that grow directly from the skin usually in pairs

If you see areoles on a plant, rest assured it’s a cactus!

2) Different types of sap (one is toxic)

While I definitely don’t recommend consuming the clear(ish) watery sap of the cactus, it is sometimes used for medicinal purposes.

In contrast, euphorbia sap is called ‘latex’. It has a slightly thicker consistency, it’s milky white and toxic!

Surface wound to my euphorbia enopla oozing thick milky sap called 'latex'
Surface wound to my euphorbia oozing thick milky sap called ‘latex’

It can cause severe skin and eye irritation. I once ended up with euphorbia sap on my hand from a flesh wound on my plant as you can see in the picture below;

I quickly washed it off and fortunately didn’t suffer any adverse side effects other than a little redness which subsided a few hours later.

3) Euphorbia generally have leaves, cacti don’t

While some cacti have hair, Generally speaking, cacti are usually leafless.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule as you can see from my orchid cactus (Epiphyllum) picture below;

Orchid cactus
Thick flat leaves of my Epiphyllum (orchid cactus)

Euphorbia on the other hand are often known for their thick fleshy green leaves but again, not in all cases as you can see from my leafless ‘euphorbia enopla’ below;

my leafless euphorbia enopla looks like a cactus
My leafless euphorbia enopla looks just like a cactus!

4) Flowers

Many species of cacti flower and they vary in size and color. They’re usually brightly colored and like to show off!

They flower during springtime providing they’ve remained dormant throughout winter with no (or very little water) or fertilizer.

Unfortunately, cacti often bloom in the dark and only usually last for a day or two.

Having said that, it does make it all that more special when they do.

Top tip: Watch out for the ugly plastic flowers that some stores glue onto cactus to help them sell!

Euphorbia flowers aren’t as showy, a little more understated, and smaller in size.

They’re usually yellow or green in color.

Where Do They Live?

Okay, so knowing where they live in the wild won’t necessarily help tell a cactus apart from a euphorbia in the store or at home, but it is quite interesting to know they come from different parts of the world.

Cacti are mostly located in the deserts of North America stretching all the way down to Argentina and Mexico which just happens to have the largest variety of species.

Cacti are mostly located in the deserts of North America stretching all the way down to Argentina and Mexico which just happens to have the largest variety of species.

Euphorbia, on the other hand, grows a little more widespread in the wild. 

Africa has the highest diversity of species which can be found in the deserts, savannas, and rainforests. They are also common in Europe, the Americas, and even parts of Asia.

Over To You

I sincerely hope I’ve been able to help you differentiate the difference between cacti and euphorbia.

Do you know of any other ways that I haven’t mentioned? If so, or if you have any questions, please fire away in the comments section below and I’ll get back to you as soon as I possibly can!


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