Plant and Garden

Ferocactus is Barrel Cacti from the Americas

Ferocactus, commonly called Barrel Cactus, lives anywhere from 50 to 130 years. It begins with a globular shape when young and eventually becomes more cylindrical, slowly reaching anywhere from 2 to 10 feet tall and 1.5 to 3 feet wide, depending on the species.

Ferocactus is found un the family Cactaceae. It is a genus of large barrel-shaped cacti, mostly with large spines and small flowers. There are about 30 species included in the genus and are native to the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.

The name Fer·​o·​cac·​tus derives from the Latin word “ferox”, meaning “fierce” and the Greek word “kaktos”, meaning “thistle”. Ferocactus cylindraceus is a species of barrel cactus first described by George Engelmann in 1853.

The Spanish name for this plant is viznaga, a common term for fat, cylindrical cacti, which can also include Mammillaria, Escobaria, and other genera. 

The young specimens are columnar but as they grow older ribs form and they take on a barrel form. Most of the species are solitary but some, such as Ferocactus robustus and F. glaucescens, have clustering habits.

Many ferocactus species are ant plants, exuding nectar along the upper meristem from extrafloral nectaries above each areole, and hosting ant colonies.

Ferocactus have very shallow root systems and are easily uprooted during flash floods.

The “fishhook” spines and the armored web of spines enclosing the cactus body in many species of this genus are adaptations which allow the plant to attach themselves to an object allowing them to move to more favorable locations.

Like Sclerocactus, Ferocactus typically grow in areas where water flows irregularly or depressions where water can accumulate for short periods of time.

They are most often found growing along arroyos (washes) where their seeds have been subjected to scarification due to water movement/

However, they oddly also tend to grow along ridges in spots where depressions have formed and can hold water for some period of time.

They are desert dwellers and can cope with some frost and intense heat. The typical habitat is hot and very arid, and the plants have adapted to exploit water movement to concentrate their biomass in areas where water is likely to be present.

In cultivation, Ferocactus require full sun, little water, and good drainage. They are popular as houseplants.

Ferocactus robustus

They cannot tolerate freezing temperatures for extended periods, which typically cause them to yellow, bleach, then slowly die.

Propagation is usually from seeds, but clustering species such as Ferocactus robustus and F. glaucescens can be propagated by removing a rooted offset and planting it.

The seeds germinate in areas where water movement occurs or in areas where standing water accumulates for some period of time.

During flash floods, the hooked spines allow the plants to be caught on waterborne debris, uprooted and carried to areas where water tends to accumulate.

Almost unbelievably, people use these plants. They are fairly well known as an emergency source of water in the desert, although experimentation will discourage this practice.

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.

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.

Ferocactus plants are rare and most species are listed as vulnerable or endangered.

Please, enjoy the beauty of their flowers, marvel at the great lengths taken in protection against herbivory and the hot sun under which they live, and do not remove them from the wild. Click to see all of the listed plants from the IUCN website.

Cactus species within the Ferocactus genus

  • Ferocactus alamosanus
  • Ferocactus chrysacanthus
  • Ferocactus cylindraceus – California Barrel Cactus
  • Ferocactus cylindraceus cylindraceus
  • Ferocactus cylindraceus lecontei
  • Ferocactus cylindraceus tortulispinus
  • Ferocactus diguetii
  • Ferocactus echidne – Sonora Barrel Cactus, Coville’s Barrel Cactus
  • Ferocactus emoryi – Emory’s Barrel Cactus
  • Ferocactus emoryi emoryi
  • Ferocactus emoryi rectispinus
  • Ferocactus flavovirens
  • Ferocactus fordii
  • Ferocactus glaucescens
  • Ferocactus gracilis – Fire Barrel Cactus
  • Ferocactus gracilis coloratus
  • Ferocactus gracilis gatesii
  • Ferocactus gracilis gracilis
  • Ferocactus haematacanthus
  • Ferocactus hamatacanthus – Turk’s-Head Barrel Cactus
  • Ferocactus herrerae – Twisted Barrel Cactus
  • Ferocactus histrix – Electrode Cactus
  • Ferocactus horridus
  • Ferocactus johnstonianus – Johnston’s Barrel Cactus
  • Ferocactus latispinus (Haw.)
  • Ferocactus macrodiscus
  • Ferocactus peninsulae
  • Ferocactus pilosus – Mexican Lime Cactus
  • Ferocactus pottsii
  • Ferocactus reppenhagenii
  • Ferocactus robustus
  • Ferocactus santa-maria – Santa-Maria Barrel Cactus
  • Ferocactus schwarzii – Schwarz’s Barrel Cactus
  • Ferocactus stainesii
  • Ferocactus townsendianus – Townsend Barrel Cactus
  • Ferocactus viridescens – San Diego Barrel Cactus
  • Ferocactus wislizeni – Fishhook Barrel Cactus, Candy Barrel Cactus

Formerly placed here

  • Sclerocactus brevihamatus tobuschii
  • Sclerocactus glaucus
  • Sclerocactus mesae-verdae
  • Sclerocactus pubispinus

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