Skip to main content

U.S. Forest Service

Plant of the Week

Ferocactus sp. range map. Ferocactus sp. range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Close-up of mountain kittentails flowers. Ferocactus cylindracious. Photo by Br. Alfred Brousseau, College of St. Mary, California.

Mountain kittentails plants. Ferocactus wislizeni. Photo by Robert Potts, California Academy of Science.

Mountain kittentails plants. Ferocactus cylindracious. Photo by Charles Webber, California Academy of Science.

Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus sp., Britt. & Rose)

By Forest Jay Gauna

The Barrel Cactus is a member of the Cactaceae, or cactus family. Barrel cacti grow into a squat tubular shape, giving it the appearance of a very spiky ribbed barrel. The genus name Ferocactus is Latin for “fierce cactus,” an apt description that will be affirmed by any who have seen the densely packed, stiff spines covering the fleshy-looking plant. The Spanish name for this plant is viznaga, a common term for fat, cylindrical cacti, which can also include Mammillaria, Escobaria, and other genera. As one would expect of such an iconic emblem of the desert southwest, these plants grow mainly in the desert, in sandy or rocky soils with little water and lots of sun.

Cactus plants without fail yield beautiful flowers. The most common species in California, Ferocactus cylindraceus, has yellow petals that are reddish at the base. Ferocactus wislizeni has reddish-orange petals. The flowers appear in a ring near the top of the tube. The petals of each flower are many, and unlike the flowers of other cacti, do not really form a tube. Between the petals and the numerous stamens is a ring of hairs. The anthers from the many stamens form a little carpet, from the centre of which come a few styles of the pistil.

The plants themselves are like thick tubes, with ridges going down the sides. They are covered with large and small spines. The larger spines keep away thirsty desert creatures, and the smaller spines help prevent water loss and scorching by reflecting away some of the intense desert sunlight.

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. Keep in mind that it is for emergencies. The flowers of the plant were collected and eaten dry or fresh, and the tiny black seeds were ground and eaten as well. From the spines, fishing hooks can be made. The tunas may be eaten and some Native Americans used this plant for candy.

Ferocactus plants are rare and most species are afforded protection from their spines. 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.

For More Information