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14 Types of Barrel Cactus (With Pictures)

notocactus schlosseri

Native to Mexico and the US, the barrel cactus is a family of rough, tough, and spiky plants with big spines and pretty flowers. If you’ve even been to the Mojave Desert, you’ve probably seen these fascinating cacti growing on rocky terrain or along the road. Mostly tubular or cylindrical, they grow best in dry, sun-scorched desert landscapes but have also proven to be excellent houseplants.

The California, Arizona, and Texas blue species are very popular. However, they are not the only barrel cacti on the planet. Overall, there are 30+ species in the Ferocactus and Echinocactus genera, and today, we want to introduce you to the 14 best picks for outdoor/indoor use. Low-maintenance and quick to grow, they will be perfect picks for your garden!

garden flower divider

Ferocactus

Famous for its cylindrical shape, Ferocactus (AKA the wild cactus) is the largest group of barrel cacti in the US. It features thick, curved spines (like a fishhook). The flowers, in turn, are a sight to see. They range from yellow to red, orange, and purple. Good drainage, moderate watering, and full sunlight—that’s what these plants need to grow and prosper.

1. California Barrel Cactus

barrel cactus
Image Credit: Abhardphoto, Pixabay
Botanical Name Ferocactus cylindraceus
Soil Well-drained, sandy, rocky, fertile (pH 6.0–7.0)
Sun Full exposure
Hardiness Zone 9a–11b
In Bloom Early April to mid-May

Known as the desert barrel, this cactus is native to Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California (obviously). Taller than the average cacti (up to 8 feet), it has a tubular shape and yellow/reddish spines. The blooms, flowers, and fruit are also yellow. The California cactus grows best when exposed to full sun for 6–8 hours; it won’t survive in a cold climate (anything lower than 9a on the hardiness zone map).

Plant it in well-drained, fertile, and rocky or sandy soil with neutral acidity, and it will bloom in April and last for 2–4 weeks.


2. Fishhook/Arizona Barrel Cactus

Arizona Barrel Cactus
Image Credit: mdebeeson, Pixabay
Botanical Name Ferocactus wislizeni
Soil Well-drained, gravel-rich, sandy, gritty (pH 6.1–7.5)
Sun Full sun/partial shade
Hardiness Zone 10–11
In Bloom April through June

This is one of the most beautiful cacti in the US. While the spines aren’t very bright, the orange slash red flowers make all the difference. They grow on top of the stems in a circle. Another standout feature: the Fishhook cactus tends to lean to the south and often has a slightly curved shape. Round at first, it gets more tubular as it matures. As a desert plant, the Fishhook prefers well-drained soil covered in gravel.

And, while it does thrive in full sun, it will survive in partial shade as well. Water it moderately, and it will start to bloom in mid-April and last through most of June.


3. Clump Barrel Cactus

Clump Barrel Cactus
Image Credit: Gert-Jan van Vliet, Shutterstock
Botanical Name Ferocactus robustus
Soil Well-drained, fertile, sandy, gravel-rich (pH 6.0–7.0)
Sun Full sun
Hardiness Zone 9a–12
In Bloom Mid-June through July

Unlike most cacti in the Ferocactus family, the clump barrel doesn’t settle with 2–3 branches. Instead, a mature plant can have hundreds of branches that reach 10 feet in diameter. In contrast, the number of spines is significantly lower than you’d expect (and they grow from the ribs). The stems are fleshy and bright green. This cactus blooms in late spring/early summer and produces yellow and orange flowers.

Well-drained, gravel-rich soil and full sun stimulate rapid growth both outdoors and indoors, especially if you add a tiny dose of fertilizer once a month during the “busy” months.


4. Texas Blue Barrel

Texas Blue Barrel Cactus
Image Credit: shihina, Shutterstock
Botanical Name Ferocactus glaucescens
Soil Well-drained, loamy, sandy (pH 6.0–7.5)
Sun Full sun/partial shade
Hardiness Zone 9a–11b
In Bloom May through June

Known as the glaucous barrel cactus in some parts of the country, Texas blue is famous for its blue-ish, deeply ribbed stems. Both the spines and the flowers are yellow/golden and the cactus blooms for many weeks (from early May through most of June). Be careful with the spines, though, as they’re short yet very sharp. Cylindrical in shape, the Texas blue barrel reaches 2 feet in diameter and looks a bit like a pumpkin.

If you want to grow it indoors, do your best to ensure 3–4 hours of direct sunlight. The cactus will grow in partial shade as well, though. The soil should be sandy and loamy, with good drainage.


5. Coville’s Barrel/Emory’s Cactus

Covilles Barrel
Image Credit: Pingky_p, Shutterstock
Botanical Name Ferocactus emoryi
Soil Well-drained, rocky, sandy, composted (pH 6.0–7.5)
Sun Full sun/partial shade
Hardiness Zone 9a–12
In Bloom Late spring to mid-summer

This late spring bloomer has many names, including Emory’s cactus and the Sonora barrel. So, why should you pick it over all the other species? Just like most desert cacti, it thrives in full sun (but will grow in shade), survives in hot climates (9a and higher), and grows best in well-drained and rocky soil. The beautiful combination of yellow/orange blooms and dark red flowers is what makes it a crowd-pleaser.

On top of that, it has an exotic rib, stem, and spine structure that gives it an “otherworldly” vibe. Speaking of the spines, they have a purple hue yet come in low numbers.


6. Turk’s Head

Turk's Head Cactus
Image Credit: Oleg Kovtun Hydrobio, Shutterstock
Botanical Name Ferocactus hamatacanthus
Soil Sandy, stony, peaty (pH 6.0–8.0)
Sun Full sun/light shade
Hardiness Zone 6a–11b
In Bloom Mid-summer to early fall

In contrast to the previous cactus on the list, Turk’s Head is all about the spines. You’ll find more than a dozen red/white/yellow spikes on every single rib. That makes it one of the most protected cacti species out there. More importantly, Turk’s Head easily withstands cold temperatures (down to 6a on the hardiness zone map) and grows in light shade. The acceptable soil acidity levels are also slightly above the average (up to 8.0).

When can you expect this “fortified” plant to bloom, though? While the exact time will vary depending on where you live, July through early September is when you’ll start seeing flowers (2–3 inches in diameter).


7. San Diego Barrel Cactus

San Diego Barrel Cactus
Image Credit: Sundry Photography, Shutterstock
Botanical Name Ferocactus viridescens
Soil Rocky, loamy, sandy (pH 5.2–7.6)
Sun Full exposure
Hardiness Zone 9b–11b
In Bloom Mid-May through June

In the wilderness, the San Diego barrel cactus grows in rocky, sandy, or loamy terrain. And, depending on the area, the acidity levels in the soil may be quite low (5.2 pH). Next, the cactus will be exposed to direct sunlight most of the day. That’s because it’s hardy in zones 9b–11b. This is a rare species, however—you might have to drive around a bit before you see it.

On the bright side, it’s equally well-suited for growing outdoors and indoors. The San Diego cactus is a shrub that grows all over the state of California. It has numerous spines (red or golden) and thick ribs.


8. Santa-Maria Barrel Cactus

Botanical Name Ferocactus Santa-Maria
Soil Well-draining, sandy, gravel-rich (pH 6.0–8.0)
Sun Full exposure
Hardiness Zone 9a–11
In Bloom Late spring to early summer

Native to the deserts of Mexico, the Santa-Maria cactus easily handles scorching sunlight. It blooms in late spring and lasts till mid-June. Just like the California cacti species, this plant grows in rocky, gravel-rich soil and will only thrive indoors if you ensure rapid drainage. What does it look like? The Santa-Maria barrel cactus is like the golden middle between San Diego and Turk’s Head.

But, it’s a bit taller and has fewer spines (they’re much longer, though). Most spines are gray/brown, while the ones in the middle are dark red, with a yellow-orange hue.


9. Townsend Barrel Cactus

Townsend Barrel Cactus
Image Credit: Gonzalo de Miceu, Shutterstock
Botanical Name Ferocactus townsendianus
Soil Well-drained, fertile, loose, rocky (pH 6.1–7.8)
Sun Full sun
Hardiness Zone 9a–10b
In Bloom Late summer to early fall

Looking for a barrel cactus that will bloom in late summer? Then the Townsend cacti might become your new favorites! As long as the soil is fertile, rocky, and loose, and the plants get 5–6 hours of sun during the day, they will flourish. This species isn’t particularly big and only reaches 20 inches in height and 12 inches in diameter. Besides, it takes a while to grow and needs more water than most cacti.

Townsend features dense, thick, and stout spines (mostly red) and yellow-orange flowers.


10. Red-Spined Barrel Cactus

Red-Spined Barrel Cactus
Image Credit: suttirat wiriyanon, Shutterstock
Botanical Name Ferocactus chrysacanthus
Soil Well-drained, gravel-rich, light (pH 6.0–8.0)
Sun Full sun/partial shade
Hardiness Zone 9a–10b
In Bloom June through early August

Tired of having to repot your plants every year? Well, that won’t be a problem with the red-spined cactus. As the name suggests, it has red spines (lots of them) instead of green or gray; or, they can be yellow, depending on the variety. In any case, it’s very slow to grow, which means repotting will only be necessary once in 3–4 years.

The stems are very thick and fleshy, but they’re covered by a huge number of spines. The flowers are yellow and grow from the top of the plant’s crown.


11. Devil’s Tongue

Devil’s Tongue Cactus
Image Credit: Angie Ip, Shutterstock
Botanical Name Ferocactus latispinus
Soil Well-drained, perlite-rich, porous, sandy (pH 6.5–7.5)
Sun Full sun
Hardiness Zone 9b–11
In Bloom Late May to mid-June

Don’t let the name confuse you: Devil’s Tongue is one of the most beautiful and long-lasting cacti out there. The ribs are gray, with a slight touch of blue, but it’s the red/orange spines that take the breath away. The flowers, in turn, are dark pink and look marvelous on top of the thick spines. Yes, this cactus looks like a million bucks and will instantly become “the life of the party” in any garden.

It flourishes in porous, perlite-rich soil and benefits greatly from full sun. Also, it blooms in late spring/early summer.

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Echinocactus

Short, thin, rounded, and with multiple spines, the echinocactus plants (spiny cacti in Greek) are very bright and colorful, with lush, larger-than-average buds and flowers. Native to Mexico, they reach 2 feet in height and 1 foot in diameter. The wavy ribs make them look even bigger. To see steady growth, plant them in gravel-rich and well-drained soil and ensure at least 4–5 hours of exposure to the sun.

12. Golden Barrel

Golden Barrel Cactus
Image Credit: abcLONG, Shutterstock
Botanical Name Echinocactus grusonii
Soil Well-drained, sandy, perlite-rich (pH 6.0–7.0)
Sun Full exposure
Hardiness Zone 9–12
In Bloom Mid-spring through summer

From afar, the golden barrel looks like a watermelon. The cactus is green; the spines and the flowers are yellow/golden (yes, hence the name). It starts to bloom in April and lasts through most of the summer. As a desert species, it only grows in areas with above-average temperatures (9–12 hardiness). Some sand, perlite, and good drainage will help you cultivate this plant.

A quick note: the golden barrel cactus is an endangered species, even though it is one of the most cultivated cacti out there.


13. Horse Crippler

Horse Crippler Cactus
Image Credit: cctm, Shutterstock
Botanical Name Echinocactus texensis
Soil Well-drained, sandy, limey (pH 6.0–7.0)
Sun Full sun/partial shade
Hardiness Zone 5–9
In Bloom Late May to mid-June

You’re probably wondering: how did this plant get its name? Well, out in the wilderness, it’s very hard to notice this cactus, and when animals step on it, it hurts their feet real bad, essentially crippling them. This is a low-growing, wide cactus with strong ribs and short, yet very sharp spines. Another name for it is Devil’s Head. Now, this is quite a resilient plant that’s hardy to zone 5 and grows rapidly in partial shade.

On top of that, it needs a bit more water to grow compared to most cacti, given the soil is sandy, a bit limey, and, of course, well-drained. The flowers are pink, while the fruits are red.


14. Cottontop Barrel Cactus

Cottontop Barrel Cactus
Image Credit: Dominic Gentilcore PhD, Shutterstock
Botanical Name Echinocactus polycephalus
Soil Well-drained, gravel-rich, sandy (pH 6.0–7.8)
Sun Full exposure
Hardiness Zone 8b–11b
In Bloom Late June through August

If you’re in the market for something extraordinary, pay extra attention to the Cottontop cactus. Its biggest standout feature is the cluster structure that includes up to 200 individual barrels (roughly 8–10 inches in diameter). The spines aren’t particularly short, but there are so many that they make it very hard to notice the stems. And, like most cacti on the list, the Cottontop cactus has yellow flowers.

divider 4How to Grow a Barrel Cactus: Gardening 101

As desert species, these cacti prefer dry, warm, and sunny conditions. So, if you’re growing one in an outside garden, pick a spot that gets at least 5–6 hours of sunlight. And if you want to use it as a houseplant, place it near a south-facing window. As for the soil, make sure it drains well. To stimulate growth, go with cactus soil that’s rich in gravel, grip, or perlite. The goal here is to use soil that drains quickly and doesn’t retain moisture.

Plant the cactus in a clay pot with large drainage holes for proper airflow. Now, if you live in an area with low humidity levels, water the cactus once a week during the hot summer days and 2–3 times during the winter months. Use your fingers to check the soil: wait until it’s dry before you water it. Fertilize the plant every 4–6 weeks during the growing period. Finally, the ideal temperature for these cacti is 50–80 degrees F.

Can You Eat It? How Does It Taste?

Most barrel cacti bloom in spring. That’s when the lovely red, green, or yellow flowers take over the stems and grow tiny fruits with a lemony flavor. The seeds, in turn, taste like nuts. If you’re not a big fan of tart and sour fruits, mix them with agave syrup. Or, you can add barrel cactus blossoms in salads or cookies. The nuts go well with bread, crackers, and even smoothies.

Oh, and these fruits are rich in vitamins C and A; adding them to your diet will strengthen your immune system. Plus, the pulp is widely used as an analgesic. You don’t have to swallow it: instead, apply it externally to the skin. Today, the fruits and seeds of the barrel cactus are more of an exotic treat. However, centuries ago, Native Americans used them as a source of vital nutrients.

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Conclusion

When it comes to the barrel cactus, there’s more than enough variety to choose from. And while there are lots of similarities between the 14 cacti that we checked out today, they are still very much different. Each species has its own, unique appearance. No matter which barrel cactus you pick, it will be worth the effort. These plants can grow in the tiniest containers, take little effort in maintenance, and will brighten up the room.

On top of that, they come with many health benefits and last for many years, if not decades!


Featured Image Credit: Dirk M. de Boer, Shutterstock

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