Succulent plants are plants that have adapted to arid climates by developing tissues that store water. Different succulents may accumulate moisture in their leaves, stems, roots, or a combination of the three. Succulents comprise hundreds of plant genera, including many plants we recognize by their common names.
Cactus (family Cactaceae)
The many species of cacti commonly store water in their stems, and are usually identifiable by their outer spines (which are modified leaves) and by their flowers, which are often quite remarkable. Cacti are the most commonly recognized succulents, to the point that many people erroneously believe that all succulent plants are of the cactus family. Cacti, in fact, represent only a small percentage of succulent plants. Familiar cactus species include the frequently pictured giant sagauro (Carnegiea gigantea) fishhook barrel (Ferocactus wislizeni) and the various species of prickly pear (genus Opuntia).
Agave (genus Agave)
The genus Agave encompasses hundreds of individual species, but generally agave plants are identifiable by their thick leaves (in which they store their water) emanating from a short stem close to the ground. Agave typically sends up a long stalk with a flower toward the end of its life span. Agave nectar is often used as a substitute for sugar, and blue agave (Agave tequilana) is used to make tequila.
Aloe (genus Aloe)
Aloe is another genus of succulent plants encompassing over 400 distinct species. Aloe plants store their water in their waxy leaves, and can range from a few inches tall to the size of trees, depending on the species. By far the most well-known aloe species is Aloe vera, the extracts of which are widely used for medicinal purposes, especially in ointments. Interestingly, in the case of Aloe vera, the Latin name is also the commonly used name.
Orchids (family Orchidaceae)
Some might be surprised to learn that orchids are succulent plants; some might be also surprised to learn that orchids include more than just the various flowers found in the flower shops. The orchid family encompasses many genera and species, including (interestingly) vanilla plants (Vanilla planifolia). Orchids typically store water in their stems via swollen shoots called pseudobulbs. They also store water in their roots and leaves. Other common orchids include the various species of boat orchids (genus Cymbidium) and corsage orchids (genus Cattleya).