How to Grow and Care for Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus & Ferocactus spp.)

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Plants commonly called Barrel Cactus belong to either the Echinocactus genus or the Ferocactus genus. To a lesser extent, certain species in the Astrophytum, Echinopsis, Sclerocactus, Neolloydia, and Thelocactus genera are also sometimes called barrel cacti.

In the Echinocactus genus, there are around six species that are native to Mexico. One of the more common of these is the Golden Barrel cactus, E. grusonii. These species can be distinguished by their wavy ribs and elongated fruits.

The genus Ferocactus contains around 30 species. These generally originate from the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. They are distinguished by their very strong stiff spines, some of which can be up to 4 inches long. These cacti also have prominent ribs.

Barrel cacti are easy to grow and are considered relatively fast-growing. Some species produce round offshoots that can be used to propagate new plants. However, the more common way to propagate these plants is by using seeds.

When the barrel cactus flowers, it takes on a whole new look. The flowers appear at the top of the crown usually in a ringed cluster. Depending on the species, these flowers can be yellow, red, pink, or orange. Once the flowers have finished, the plant will produce fruit that looks like small pineapples. Inside these fruits, you’ll find thousands of tiny black seeds.

History

Some of the largest specimens of barrel cacti have been found in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. It has been noted that these plants can live for over 100 years.

The botanical name Ferocactus is Latin and means “fierce cactus”. This is easily explained by the sharp spines that cover the fleshy stems of this plant. On the other hand, Echinocactus comes from the Greek word “echinos” which means spiny.

It’s believed that travelers who had lost their way in the desert would often look for a barrel cactus. This is because the plant instinctively grows tilted to the southwest. For the plant, this is a survival tactic and a way of not being burned by the hot afternoon sun.

Plant Facts

Scientific nameEchinocactus spp, Ferocactus spp.
Common namesGolden Barrel cactus, Barrel cactus
GenusEchinocactus & Ferocactus
FamilyCactaceae
HeightUp to 10 feet depending on species
WidthUp to 2 feet depending on species
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone9 to 12
OriginNorth and South America
Flower colorsYellow, orange, purple, pink, red
Blooming seasonSpring
Plant/Flower special featuresThese cacti produce small pineapple-shaped fruit that has been known to last for an entire year. However, the fruit is quite dry and bitter.

How to Plant and Grow Barrel Cactus

Barrel cacti can be grown either outdoors or in a large pot inside in a warm and bright spot. Out in the garden, a barrel cactus makes a great addition to a rock garden among other succulents. 

If you plan to grow a barrel cactus indoors, make sure you place it in the warmest room in your house and where it will receive plenty of bright light. Make sure that you use a light cactus potting mix and water your plant sparingly. 

How to Propagate Barrel Cactus

Barrel cacti can easily be propagated from seed. The seeds will germinate readily given the right conditions. Here’s what to do:

  • Fill a tray or relatively shallow pot with a good quality cactus mix.
  • Scatter the seeds on the surface of the mix.
  • Cover the seeds lightly with a little sand.
  • Mist the soil to moisten well.
  • Cover the tray or pot with a cloche or some plastic to retain moisture and humidity and place in a warm spot.
  • Once the seedlings are large enough, they can be re-potted into individual pots. (Make sure you wear gloves when handling the young plants because the spines are very sharp.)

Care and Maintenance

Barrel cacti are very easy to maintain and don’t require a lot of care. As long as they are planted in well-drained soil, receive a little water in the warmer months, and are fertilized once a year, they’ll grow happily on their own.

Soil

When considering the type of soil that this cactus needs, think about where it grows naturally. The plant can handle even poor soils as long as they are well-drained. This is definitely not a plant that you want growing in wet areas in your garden.

Ideally, a sandy loam is best and will give the cactus exactly what it needs to thrive. If you do happen to have heavy clay soil, you’ll need to improve the drainage of the soil first if you want to grow barrel cacti in your garden.

Otherwise, grow these impressive cacti in a large terracotta pot and move them around to add some extra interest to your garden, porch, or patio. Just remember not to place your plant in a high traffic area as the sharp spines can be quite damaging.

Water

Barrel cactus, as you would imagine, is very drought tolerant. The plant stores water in its barrel-shaped stem. This helps the cactus to survive in even the most arid desert regions. 

Therefore, you only need to water your cactus around once a month during summer. It doesn’t require watering during the colder months. 

Fertilizer

It’s a good idea to give your cactus some balanced fertilizer in fall and spring. This will promote strong root growth and will encourage your cactus to flower.

Sunlight

Barrel cacti should be grown in full sun but doesn’t mind a little protection from the scorching afternoon sun. Fortunately, the heavy cover of spines does prevent the plant from suffering sunburn, even on the hottest days.

If growing indoors, choose a nice bright spot that does not receive direct sunlight. This is because the heat of the sun is intensified as it passes through the glass of the window. This could easily scorch your plant. 

Temperature and Humidity

Barrel cacti originate from hot, desert regions. Therefore, they do prefer the warmer weather and don’t mind some humidity. However, the desert does get cold at night, so these cacti are adaptable to temperature variances.

Ideally, the preferred temperature is within the range of 64 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. (10 to 30 degrees Celsius). Some species can be quite frost-tender. So, if you live in a zone that gets freezing temperatures at night, it’s best to grow your cactus indoors during the winter months.

Pruning

These plants don’t need any pruning.

Pest and diseases

Barrel cacti can be susceptible to attacks from mealybugs and scale insects. These can be difficult to remove due to the sharp spines that the plant has. You can try picking off the offending insects with a pair of tweezers or spray the plant with some diluted apple cider vinegar or isopropyl alcohol.

Uses of Barrel Cactus

Native Americans would collect the fruit of the barrel cactus to keep as an emergency food supply if they experienced extreme drought conditions. Generally, the fruit is quite dry and bitter and not very palatable.

In Mexico, however, the flesh of the barrel cacti is candied and is considered a treat.

Native Americans also collected the flowers of some species and these were eaten dried or even fresh. The tiny black seeds produced by the fruit were ground up and also used for food. The sharp spines of the Ferocactus were often used as fishing hooks as well.

Common Varieties and Cultivars

There are only around 6 species in the Echinocactus genus but around 30 species in the Ferocactus genus. Here are just a few of the more common types of barrel cactus.

  • Echinocactus grusonii (Golden Barrel cactus)
  • Ferocactus cylindraceus (Saguaro Barrel cactus or California Barrel cactus)
  • Ferocactus wislizeni (True Barrel cactus or Compass cactus)
  • Ferocactus robustus
  • Ferocactus glaucescens (Glaucous Barrel cactus or Blue Barrel cactus)
  • Ferocactus latispinus (Devil’s Tongue cactus)
  • Ferocactus macrodiscus (Candy cactus)
  • Ferocactus emoryi (Colville’s Barrel cactus or Sonora Barrel cactus)
  • Echinocactus platyacanthus
  • Echinocactus texensis
  • Echinocactus horizonthalonius
  • Echinocactus polycephalus
  • Ferocactus chrysacanthus
  • Ferocactus alamosanus
  • Ferocactus acanthodes

Conclusion

The barrel cactus is an interesting plant to add to your cacti or succulent collection. The plant is easy to care for and doesn’t require a lot of maintenance. It’s an attractive barrel-shaped cactus with rather sharp spines.

Each plant takes around 2 to 3 years before it starts flowering but the wait is definitely worth it. The lovely, bright flowers in colors of yellow, red, pink or orange will certainly brighten up your day.