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The Barrel Cactus

Living in the low desert, we have grown to enjoy our tall cactus such as the Saguaro and Ocotillos. These are a mainstay in our landscape, but what if you don’t have the space for these stately specimens? One of the most popular and eye-catching cacti that can be brought into smaller spaces is the Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus & Echinocactus). They are always cylindrical or barrel shaped, and all members of this genus have prominent ribs and are armed with fierce heavy spines. In some, one or more central spines are curved like a fishhook, accounting for the common name Fishhook Barrel Cactus. Barrel Cactus flowers always grow in a ring around the top of the plant. The flowers are approximately 1 1/2 to 2 inches across and range in color from yellow to orange to red. Most bloom April through June, depending on the weather.
Native Americans boiled young flowers in water to eat like cabbage and mashed older boiled flowers for a drink. The fruit becomes fleshy and often juicy. Though it can be eaten, it is not usually considered edible.

The cactus was also used as a cooking pot by cutting off the top, scooping out the pulp and inserting hot stones, together with the food. The spines were used for needles, awls, and tattooing. The pulp of the barrel cactus may be chewed for food and water in emergency situations, but the taste can vary from species to species and obvious care needs to be used when obtaining the pulp. The pulp was also widely used for making cactus candy, but this almost caused the destruction of the Candy Barrel Cactus, and consequently it is now protected in many areas.

Barrel-Cactus4One of the most popular of the Barrel Cactus is the Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii). This species is more delicate than its relatives and is very popular here in our landscapes. The cactus is almost round and the ribs are thickly lined with stiff yellow spines. These spines overlap enough to form a light web over the dark green skin, which makes them a dramatic looking cactus. The flowers are bright yellow with straw like petals. Golden Barrels need good drainage and gravel soil. When purchased, remove the cactus from its container and allow the roots to dry out in a dry, shady location. When planting, dig the hole two to three times wider than the container and as deep. No soil amendments are necessary. Fill the hole and press the soil gently. Water immediately and then every 5 to 7 days for the first month, then every 7 to 10 days for the first summer (no bubbler is necessary next to this cactus or any other cactus). Its only enemy is too much water collected around the roots since it is highly susceptible to root rot. When watering be sure you water away from the cactus (easy calculation is divide the cactus in half and water that distance way from it, this also goes for any other cactus) and do not water on top of the cactus since this will cause sunburn on the cactus. If you decide to shade your Golden Barrel in the summer, do it wisely. Until our temperature reaches 120 degrees, these cacti will survive just fine. Once you start shading your cactus (this goes for any cactus) it will become dependent on this shade and therefore will require you to shade it every year. It is best to give your Golden Barrel some tough love and allow it to become acclimated to our climate.

Golden Barrel Cactus is grown by seed and is not a native plant and therefore is not considered a “protected” cactus and does not require a tag. All other barrels such as Fishhook Barrels and Red Barrels are native cactus, are protected, and do require tags. Removal of these cacti from state lands and parks is considered a federal offense.

Dottie Holman is a Lake Havasu Master Gardener Emeritus. For details, call the Lake Havasu Master Gardeners hotline at 928-753-3788, email mohavece@cals.arizona.edu, or see them the first Tuesday of the month from 11am -1pm at the Mohave County Library.

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