Plant and Garden

Echinocactus, Ferocactus, and other Barrel Cactus Care and Information

There are a number of species of this genus, most of which grow in central Mexico and Baja, California.

Barrel cacti are various members of the two genera Echinocactus and  Ferocactus. Various other barrel cacti include members of the genera AstrophytumEchinopsisNeolloydiaSclerocactus, and Thelocactus.

Barrel cacti are found along desert washes, gravely slopes and beneath desert canyon walls.


They are native to the hot deserts of North America from the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts of southern California, southern Arizona west to Texas and south into Baja, California and central Mexico.

Barrel cactus can fall over because they grow based on sun orientation. They usually grow towards the south to prevent surface tissue sunburn, giving the name “compass cactus

Barrel cactus can live to be over 100 years old.

Natives refer to barrel cactus as biznaga, bisnaga and viznaga.

Ferocactus, meaning “fierce or wild cactus,” are always cylindrical or barrel-shaped. This genre is among the largest cacti of the North American deserts.

The nearly 30 species of the genus. All members have prominent ribs and are fiercely armed with heavy spines. In some species, one or more central spines are curved like a fishhook, accounting for the common name fishhook barrel cactus.


Echinocactus is derived from the Ancient Greek εχινος (echinos), meaning “spiny,” and cactus. This plant comprises six species native to Mexico. Plants are more or less globose, usually growing to about 60 cm (2 feet) high and about 30 cm (1 foot) in diameter.

The genus is distinguished primarily by its numerous wavy ribs and elongated fruits.

The golden barrel cactus (E. grusonii) is a common desert ornamental, noted for its striking golden spines; the plant is an endangered species in the wild.


Sclerocactus comes from the Greek and refers to the hard, dry fruit has 19 members, which are sometimes called little barrels.

They have at least one hooked central spine. (All cacti with such curved spines may be called fishhook cacti, including some species of Ferocactus.)

These plants are found in higher elevation deserts such as on the Colorado Plateau, or in the Mohave Desert or the Great Basin.

They are well suited to extremes due to lack of rainfall, hot summers and below freezing winters.


Neolloydia, comprising about 14 species that was first described by Britton & Rose in 1922. It is uniquely found in the dry scrub areas of southern Texas (Big Bend) and the Chihuahua Desert of Northeast Mexico.

Neolloydia is conspicuous, variable, and often confused with unrelated species, especially in Coryphantha. The papillate, pitted, smooth, and reticulate seeds are needed for distinguishing Neolloydia species from Coryphantha.

Several other genera, especially Thelocactus and the Mexican Turbinicarpus, have been variously associated with Neolloydia.


Thelocactus is a genus of up to 30 species (depending on the authority). They are distributed in mountainous stony/rocky places or grassy territory with clay soil. Species can be found in central and northern Mexico and in the US in Texas.

In Mexico, the species are generally concentrated along and to the west of the Sierra Madre Oriental beginning with T. hastifer in Querétaro State, about 150 km NNW of Mexico City.

These are small to medium-sized more or less spiny plants with tubercles (protuberances) distinct or coalescent into ribs. Several species are known as miniature barrel cacti.

Barrel Cactus Blooms

Barrel cactus flowers always grow at the top of the plant.

As the flowers wilt away, small pineapple-shaped greenish fruit may form. Left untouched, the fruit has been known to last a full calendar year. The fruit can be easily removed but are not usually consumed because they are fairly dry and bitter.

The pulp of barrel cactus has been widely used for making cactus candy (thus one of its common names, candy barrel cactus), but this has also accounted for its destruction and, therefore, protected status in many areas.


Barrel cactus fruit is rich in vitamin A and vitamin C. Its pulp can be applied externally as an analgesic. The fresh fruit is tart and lemony with hints of rose and guava, while the seeds impart a neutral nutty flavor

The fruit of the Barrel cactus is best prepared in sweet applications since its natural tartness lends itself well to a hint of sugar. Cook the fruit down with agave syrup to make a jam, jelly or sweet, and sour chutney.

The fresh fruit can also be added to baked goods like cake batter or used raw in salads and salsas. Once the fruit has dried, the tiny black seeds can be ground into a flour or added whole into crackers, bread, hot cereal, granola, soups, and smoothies. 

Flowers appear at the top of the plant only on mature specimens.

Native Americans collected the fruit as emergency food during extreme drought conditions.

In an emergency, the pulp of the stem can be chewed for its food and water content, but obvious care must be taken during such an operation. . 

Native Americans boiled young flowers in water to eat like cabbage and mashed older boiled flowers for a drink.

They also used the cactus as a cooking pot by cutting off the top, scooping out the pulp and inserting hot stones together with food. The spines were used as needles, as awls, and in tattooing.

Barrel Cactus Evolution

Every part of the barrel cactus has been forged from a long evolution in a desert environment

The whole of the barrel cactus is designed to retain water. Spines serve not only as a defense mechanism against hungry desert animals, they also provide some shading to the plant.

The stem is covered in a thick, waxy coating that seals the plant, protecting it from excessive evaporation. The root system of a barrel cactus is shallow, but large and net-like, enabling the cactus to catch as much water as possible during desert rains.

The shape of the barrel cactus is a precision design, directing any dew or rain directly to the roots of the plant.

Up to 25 accordion-style folds effectively decrease the amount of surface area of the plant that is exposed to the harsh conditions of the desert.

Barrel cacti also grow at an angle, often tilted to the south in order to partially shade themselves and prevent sunburn.

The barrel cactus is one of the best water retainers among plants, thanks to a gelatinous pulp that can absorb a significant amount of water.

The accordion-shaped ribs are designed to expand as water stores increase and shrink back when water is less abundant. This combination of water-retaining pulp and flexible skin allows the cactus to hold an impressive amount of water, with 5- to 6-foot barrel cacti often weighing several hundred pounds.

Perhaps the most impressive adaptation of the barrel cactus is an adaptation known as Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM).

Instead of normal photosynthesis, in which all necessary raw materials are taken in and used at once, CAM allows the plant to keep its stoma closed during the day to minimize water loss.

The barrel cactus opens its stoma during the night to collect carbon dioxide from the environment and stores it as malic acid until photosynthesis begins in the morning. A side effect of CAM is a drop in the pH of the plant’s fluids, sometimes reaching as low as 4.0. The low pH causes a bitter-tasting pulp that may help to discourage night feeding by wildlife.

Barrel Cactus Care

Caring for barrel cactus is quite easy and it makes a great plant for the beginning gardener

Potted cactus should be kept in the warmest room of the home in a bright sunny location. Direct southern sunlight may burn the plant in the height of the summer, so you should move them back from the window or turn the slats on your blinds to diffuse the light.



Soil for barrel cactus is mostly sand with a little topsoil, perlite and compost. Prepared cactus mixes are suitable for growing barrel cactus. Unglazed pots are best for potted cactus because they allow the evaporation of excess water.

Water is a very important component of caring for barrel cactus.

The plants are native to arid desert regions and usually, have only rainfall to supply their moisture needs. Water your barrel cactus once per week in summer.

The barrel cactus doesn’t need much water in winter when it is dormant. Water once between December and February. Adequate water in spring may cause the plant to produce a large yellow flower. Rarely the plant will then grow an edible fruit.

The cactus naturally grows in low fertility areas so their nutrient needs are low. Fertilize the barrel cactus once a year in spring when it leaves dormancy and begins growing again. A low nitrogen liquid fertilizer is a good formula for the barrel cactus.

The amount of fertilizer will depend on the size of your container and plant. Consult the packaging for guidance on the exact amount.

Propagating Barrel Cactus

Always use gloves when handling barrel cactus, as their spines can be painful.

Barrel cactus can be grown from seed. Fill a flat with commercial cactus mix and sow the seeds on the surface of the soil. Sprinkle a thin layer of sand on top of the seeds and then the soil needs to be evenly misted.

Cover the flat with a lid or plastic wrap and keep it in a warm location. The seeds readily germinate and can be transplanted when they are big enough to a larger container.

Cooking With Barrel Cactus

For a gluten-free treat, try this: “Lemon Barrel-Seed Cake”

1 cup flax seed meal
2 teaspoons alum-free baking powder
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons barrel-fruit seed, toasted
1 teaspoon lemon flavoring
2 tablespoons sweetening – to taste (honey, brown sugar, agave syrup – your choice)
1 tablespoon oil (olive oil, butter, coconut oil – your choice)
4 eggs

Mix the dry ingredients, add the wet ones, blend well and pour into a glass loaf pan. Microwave for at least 3 minutes, and perhaps up to 4 minutes. It takes 3 minutes 15 seconds in our microwave. Run a knife around the edges and tip it out of the pan right away.

Let us know your ideas and comments below!

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