Barrel cacti are classified into the two genera Echinocactus and Ferocactus, both of which are found in the Southwest Desert of North America. Their pineapple-shaped fruits can be easily removed but are not recommended for consuming because they are fairly dry and bitter to the taste. Native Americans collected the fruit as emergency food during extreme drought conditions. The barrel cactus easily reaches over a meter in height at maturity, and have been known to reach 10 feet in some regions. Its ribs are numerous and pronounced, and the spines are long and can range in color from yellow to tan to red, depending on the age of the plant and the genera. Small yellow flowers appear at the top of the plant only after many years. It is considered easy to grow and relatively fast growing; and may also produce round offshoots.
The Serigna Mana people, distinguished three species of barrel cactus: 'Saguaro barrel cactus', Ferocactus acanthodes, Siml caacöl ('big barrel cactus', Ferocactus covillei) and Siml áa ('true barrel cactus', Ferocactus wislizenii). Mojepe simlsamahlataen' is a liquid found in the cactus and can be deadly if sniffed. The species Ferocactus covillei also had several other names; one of which was siml cöquicöt, 'killer barrel cactus', to indicate that it should not be eaten or its liquid consumed.
One should approach a barrel cactus with extreme caution. A puncture to human skin from one of the spines is considered a 'dirty wound'. If the puncture is deep enough to draw blood, antibiotics may be needed, and could take several months for the wound to heal properly. Barrel cactus plants are one of the more dangerous cacti in the desert.
Many people mistakenly believe that the common sight of a tipped over barrel cactus is due solely to the cactus falling over from water weight. Actually, barrel cacti fall over because they grow based on the sun, just like any other plant. Water weight is just part of this occurrence. Unlike other plants, however, the barrel cactus usually grows towards the south (to prevent sunburn), hence the name "compass cactus."
The barrel cactus buds start to bloom in April with a bright yellow or orange flower. Pink and red varieties also exist but occur less frequently. The buds mature into a small pineapple-shaped greenish fruit; that is left behind as the flowers wilt away. Left untouched, the edible fairly dry fruit has been known to last a full calendar year. The flowers only appear on the very top of the plant. As the yellow flowers begin to wilt in early May, they turn orange in color. A late summer Desert Rainstorm can produce a late bloomer as shown in the photo of the orange flowered variety that bloomed two days after a rain storm in mid August; and then continued to bloom right through the end of September. Barrel cacti can store up to and sometimes more than 500 litres of water; and can live to 100 years or more.
Fishhook Barrel Cactus with fruit.
Barrel cactus cluster in Sahuarita, Arizona.
Barrel cactus at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Late blooming Orange Barrel Cactus in Landers, California in August 2012.