Are Euphorbia Cacti?

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Euphorbia(Euphorbiaceae) plants are not cacti. While they are succulents and may resemble cacti in appearance, they belong to the Euphorbiaceae family and are commonly referred to as spurges.

Some Euphorbia species are referred to as cacti in their common names, even though they are not true cacti. This can be attributed to their physical characteristics and forms, which have evolved to resemble those of cacti found in North and South America. Examples include Pencil Cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli), Cowboy Cactus (Euphorbia ingens), and Desert Cactus (Euphorbia Erytrea), among others.

However, common names can sometimes be misleading, and the term “cactus” is often used loosely to describe any succulent plant with a cactus-like appearance. This can lead to Euphorbia species being referred to as cacti in their common names, even though they belong to a different botanical family.

The family Euphorbiaceae is the fifth-largest flowering plant family, with about 7,500 species organized into 300 genera, 37 tribes, and three subfamilies: Acalyphoideae, Crotonoideae, and Euphorbioideae 

The leaves of Euphorbiaceae plants are mainly simple, but compound leaves are always palmate, never pinnate. Stipules may be reduced to hairs, glands, or spines, or absent in succulent species

How To Tell Euphorbia from Cacti

While Euphorbias may resemble cacti in some ways, they are distinct plants belonging to a different family. It’s therefore important to differentiate between the two and understand their unique characteristics to ensure proper care. Here are some key differences between Euphorbia plants and cacti:


Cacti have cushiony structures called “areoles., which are fuzzy dots from which spines, stems, and flowers grow.

These areoles are a key diagnostic feature of the family Cactaceae are present on all cacti and are a sure sign of a true cactus.

Euphorbias, on the other hand, have no areoles, although they are succulents and spine-bearing. Not to confuse the issue, but many plants (such as Euphorbiaceae, Rosaceae, Punicaceae, etc.) produce spines, but no other plants bear areoles, only Cactaceae.

An “areole” is a pad structure that is seen at the base of the spines. Even if a cactus has no spines it will have areoles.

Thorns vs. Spines

Euphorbias usually bear single or paired thorns, which are modified stems and are part of the stem itself. These thorns are usually thick and cannot be easily broken off without damaging the plant.

Cacti, on the other hand, have spines, which are modified leaves. Cactus spines often form a circle and can be easily broken off.


Euphorbias produce milky white sap when wounded. To find out, carefully make a cut on the plant, and if the sap is milky white and sticky, then it’s a Euphorbia. Just be careful because Euphorbia sap can cause skin irritation, so if you’re going to try this, wear gloves to be safe.

However, if the sap is clear and watery, it’s a cactus. Most cacti, when cut, have clear sap that is rarely irritating to the skin.

What Euphorbia looks like a cactus?

There are several species of Euphorbia that resemble cacti in appearance. Although they may look like cacti, they are not actually related to the Cactaceae family. Here are a few Euphorbia species that have a cactus-like appearance:

Euphorbia ingens

Also known as the “Cowboy Cactus”, this plant can reach impressive heights of up to 15 meters in the wild. It is a succulent tree with thick, segmented stems that have a columnar growth structure as they mature.

The stems are typically dark green but can develop a grayish hue as they mature. The segmented stems give it a cactus-like appearance, with each segment resembling a cactus pad.

Euphorbia horrida

Euphorbia horrida, commonly known as the African Milk Barrel or Spiny Euphorbia, does have a cactus-like appearance. It has irregular basally clumping stems that closely resemble the growth structure of some cactus species.

As it matures, Euphorbia horrida forms tight clumps of upright columns, resembling the growth habit of cactus barrel cacti.

Euphorbia Erytrea

Native to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia, this plant thrives on East African rocks and hillsides. It has distinctive ribbed margins on its branches and can grow small leaves from the needle tips in the spring.

Euphorbia tirucalli

This species is native to southern and eastern Africa and can grow from a small shrub to a large tree in the wild. It is commonly known as the Pencil Plant due to its many pencil-thick branches [1].

Euphorbia trigona

Also referred to as the African milk tree, this plant is native to Tanzania, Angola, and the Congo. It goes into dormancy during the winter, losing its small leaves, only to leaf out again in the spring. A common variation of this plant is Euphorbia trigona ‘Rubra’, which has all-purple green leaves.

These Euphorbia species resemble cacti due to their spiky appearance and succulent nature. However, it is important to note that they have different care requirements compared to true cacti.

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