Barrel Cactus

Genus: Ferocactus

barrel cactus with flowers

Ferocactus, meaning "fierce or wild cactus," are always cylindrical or barrel shaped and are usually among the largest cacti of the North American deserts. All members of this genus 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.

Barrel cactus flowers always grow at the top of the plant. They bear no spines and only a few scales. Fruits become fleshy and often juicy when mature, but are not usually considered edible.

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.

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. The taste can vary greatly depending on species.

Natives refer to all species of barrel cactus as biznaga, bisnaga and viznaga. There are a number of species of this genus, most of which grow in central Mexico and Baja, California. Four species are recognized growing in the deserts of the American Southwest.

flowers on barrel cactus

Range & Habitat

Barrel cactus usually grow along desert washes, gravely slopes and beneath desert canyon walls in all of the hot desert 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


Most barrel cactus have 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inch yellow-green or red flowers growing in a crown near the top of the stem. Most species bloom April through June, depending on local conditions. Growing up to 10 feet high, all have stout ribs, Dense clusters of spines usually grow along the ribs, sometimes forming a cross in the center of the cluster.

Information on the species below is based on wild, non-cultivated samples.

Ferocactus wislizenii

When young, this barrel cactus is globe-shaped, elongating only after becoming about a foot in diameter. It has a long, wide, flat central spine, crosshatched with little ridges and curving downward at the end. It also has many white, bristly radial spines.

Desert: Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts of southern Arizona and New Mexico
Height: 4-11 feet
Spines: Red beneath a gray surface layer.
Flowers: Orange, red or yellow bloom in July to September
Fruit: Bright yellow, fleshy
Elevation: 1,000-4,600 feet

Ferocactus cylindraceus (formerly F. acanthodes)

Thriving in hot deserts, this barrel cactus enjoys precipitous habitats. There is no pronounced difference between its central and radial spines, but central ones are stouter, curved, ridged, and sometimes hooked.

Desert: Sonoran and Mojave deserts of southern California, southern Arizona, southern Nevada, and southwestern Utah.
Height: 4-8 feet
Spines: Dense, light yellow to bright red hiding the plant barrel
Flowers: Orange, red or yellow appear in July and August
Fruit: Yellow, fleshy
Elevation: 200-5,000 feet

Ferocactus covillei (also called F. emoryi)

Younger plants of this barrel cactus have colored spines and often a purple hue. This barrel cactus has very few spines that are strongly crosshatched ridges. The very long central spines are only slightly flat and not hooked.

Desert: Sonoran Desert of Pima and Yuma counties Arizona, south into Mexico
Height: To 8 feet
Spines: Deep red under a surface layer of gray
Flowers: Yellow, orange or maroon appear in July and August
Fruit: Spiny & dry
Elevation: 1,500 to 3,500 feet

Ferocactus hamatacanthus

This small, globe-shaped cactus is usually green but may turn purple under full sunlight. The long central spine may be up to 6 inches long and curved back on itself at the tip.

Desert: Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas
Height: To 16 inches
Spines: Slender yellow, red or brown twist in many directions.
Flowers: Yellow with reddish bases bloom in May through July
Fruit: Brown and juicy
Elevation: Sea level-5,000 feet

At least 15 species of barrel cactus grow in the Sonoran Desert of Baja, California and in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts of central Mexico.

F. chrysacanthus
F. diguetii
F. fordii
F. gatesii
F. gracilis
F. johnstonianus
F. peninsulae
F. rectispinus
F. townsendianus
F. viridescens

F. flavovirens
F. hewrrerae
F. latispinus
F. robustus
F. stainesii


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