Centennial Museum gecko logo

Desert Diary
Plants/Yucca vs. Cactus


How often have you seen a picture of a yucca or an agave in a newspaper with a caption commenting on this "cactus"? Too often, from the viewpoint of naturalists! Although cacti, yuccas, and agaves fall into the descriptive category of "succulents", cacti are not at all closely related to the others, being in a family all of their own. In other words, just having a fleshy body and sharp points to fend off enemies does not make a cactus.

Botanists usually consider flower types important in classifying plants—and if you've gotten up close and personal with flowers, you know that the bloom of a cactus has numerous overlapping petals extending from an open center and isn't anything like the bell-shaped yucca blossom. There are a lot of other important features as well. Agaves and yuccas are practically all leaves, while most cacti are all stems. The pain of a close encounter is about the only thing in common, for the moisture-laden tissues must fend off attacks from a myriad of hungry and thirsty animals.
pen and ink


Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Cactus blossom   Cactus blossom   Yucca blossoms

Cactus and yucca blossoms; images may be clicked on for larger pictures.



Vines, R. A. 1960. Trees, shrubs, and woody vines of the Southwest. University of Texas Press, Austin, 1104 pp.

Web Resources

DesertUSA. Information and images of a number of cacti and other succulents.