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Barrel Cactus: Grow and Care Guide

Barrel cacti are various cylindrical or spherical species within the Ferocactus and Echinocactus genera. Native to the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, these cacti are adapted to grow in hot and arid environments.

The stems are deeply ribbed with spines protruding from areoles.  In spring or early summer, mature species produce tubular, orange to yellow flowers. Barrel cacti can be solitary or clump-forming.

Scientific NameFerocactus spp., Echinocactus spp.
Common NameBarrel Cactus
Plant TypeCactus, perennial
GenusFerocactus, Echinocactus
OriginSouthwestern North America, Central America
SizeUp to 3-5’ tall, 2’ wide
USDA Hardiness Zones9-11
Propagation MethodsSeed, offsets
ClimateArid to semi-arid
Soil TypeWell-draining, sandy
Sun ExposureFull sun

Barrel Cactus Care


Barrel cacti grow best in full sun exposure, requiring at least 6 to 8 hours of bright light a day. For indoor plants, place next to a west- or south-facing window. Symptoms of insufficient light include stunted growth, pale or faded coloring, and stretched or elongated stems. During periods of extreme heat in hot climates, provide light shade during the hottest parts of the day.

Tip: Rotate indoor pots occasionally to ensure even sun exposure.


The soil should be sandy and gritty. For container plants, combine two parts cactus potting mix with one part coarse sand and one part pumice or perlite. Outdoors, barrel cacti do well in rock gardens and in raised beds. Avoid planting in clay soils or in regions with heavy rainfall.


Ensure the soil dries completely before watering and avoid sitting the pot in excess water. During the summer, water once every 1 to 2 weeks. Reduce watering frequency during the winter—just once or twice from November to February is sufficient.

Tip: Use filtered water or rainwater to prevent mineral buildup in the soil and chlorine-induced root damage.


The barrel cactus is adapted to arid environments. Avoid overly humid conditions and provide good air ventilation in enclosed spaces.


Feed with a diluted, balanced fertilizer once a month during the growing season. Avoid overfertilizing which can damage the sensitive roots and may cause weakened growth. Fertilization is not necessary in the fall and winter.

Barrel Cactus Flowering

Barrel cacti can take 5 to 10 years to reach maturity before flowering. In the spring and early summer, the flowers emerge from the top of the cactus and can last for several weeks. In the wild, some species may flower again in the fall after heavy rain. The barrel cactus is more likely to flower outdoors in hot climates. Indoors, mature cacti may flower under the right conditions.

  • Provide adequate sunlight.
  • Water sparingly. Avoid overwatering which can inhibit flowering.
  • Provide cooler nights and warmer days during the growing season.
  • Avoid nitrogen-rich fertilizers that will encourage excessive growth over flower production. Feed with a diluted, balanced or potassium-rich fertilizer.

Barrel Cactus Fruit

After pollination, the flower will wilt and a small fruit may form. The barrel cactus fruit is yellow to green and pineapple-shaped. While it is edible, barrel cacti are not typically cultivated for their fruits.


There are various types of barrel cactus within the Ferocactus and Echinocactus genera.

  • Echinocactus grusonii (Golden Barrel Cactus): Globe-shaped or spherical with yellow spines. Mature specimens can reach up to 3 feet tall and wide. Yellow flowering cactus. They are considered endangered in their native Mexico.
  • Ferocactus cylindraceus (California Barrel Cactus): Cylindrical stem with red spines. Can grow up to 6 feet tall.
  • Ferocactus emoryi (Emory’s Barrel Cactus): Spherical becoming cylindrical when mature. Long, curved, red or rust-colored spines. Can grow up to 6 feet tall.
  • Ferocactus glaucescens (Glaucous Barrel Cactus): Spherical stem with pale yellow to white spines. Can reach up to 3 feet tall and 12 inches wide.
  • Ferocactus viridescens (Coast Barrel Cactus): Spherical or short cylindrical stem with pink to yellow or brown spines. Can grow up to 1 foot tall and wide.
  • Ferocactus wislizenii (Fishhook Barel Cactus): Spherical becoming cylindrical when mature. The thick, hooked spines are white to grey. Can reach 3 to 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide.

Propagating Barrel Cactus

Barrel cacti are best propagated by seed. Some species may produce offsets with age. Propagate in the early spring.


Harvest seed from mature barrel cacti once the fruits have ripened and dried. 

  1. Soak the seeds overnight in room-temperature water.
  2. Fill a seedling tray with equal parts cactus soil and coarse sand. Lightly moisten.
  3. Place seeds on the surface.
  4. Lightly press into the soil – take care not to bury the seeds.
  5. Mist with water.
  6. Cover the tray with a clear plastic lid, bag, or film.
  7. Maintain a temperature of 70 °F to 80 °F and place in bright indirect light. Keep the soil lightly moist.
  8. Remove the lid once seedlings begin to develop and move the tray to a sunny location. Seeds may take several weeks to germinate.
  9. Once the seedlings are 2 to 3 inches tall, transplant them to larger pots.


Offsets (pups) are a natural method of reproduction for many cacti and succulents. Small cacti form at the base of the parent plant. Barrel cacti may only produce offsets after several years—some species produce offsets less frequently than others.

  1. Identity a well-developed, healthy offset
  2. Gently detach the pup from the parent plant. Some offsets may separate easily without much resistance. If necessary, use a sterilized, sharp knife to cut the offset from the parent plant.
  3. Place the offset in a warm, shaded location for a few days to callous.
  4. Plant the calloused end into a gritty, well-draining substrate. Lightly water.
  5. Roots may develop within several weeks to a few months. Larger offsets will establish more quickly.


Repot once every 2 to 3 years or once the roots begin to grow out of the pot. Wearing gloves, gently remove the cactus from the pot and brush off excess soil from the root ball. Choose a pot slightly larger and fill with fresh substrate. Avoid watering for several days after repotting to allow the cactus to settle.


It is possible to grow barrel cacti outside all year round in USDA zones 9-11. In climates with winters cooler than 30 °F, bring containers indoors or cultivate as a houseplant. Water just once or twice during the winter. Protect from drafts or extreme temperature fluctuations. 

Common Problems 

  • Mushy, shriveled, or blackened stems: Caused by overwatering. Allow the soil to dry completely. In severe cases, repot into fresh, dry substrate.
  • Elongated stems: Leggy growth caused by insufficient light. Symptoms may also include pale coloring and weakened spines. Place in a location that receives at least 6 to 8 hours of bright light a day. Consider using a grow light for indoor plants in dark locations.
  • Bleached or browning patches: Symptoms of sunburn. Protect the cactus from intense sun during heatwaves in hot climates.


Barrel cacti are relatively resistant to pests. They may be susceptible to mealybugs or scale insects.

  • Mealybugs: Appear as white, cotton-like masses. Moist or humid conditions will make the cactus susceptible. Remove with a Q-tip soaked in rubbing alcohol. Spray with a mild insecticidal soap or neem oil.
  • Scale insects: Appear as small bumps on the stems. Remove with a soft brush soaked in a mild insecticidal soap.


Barrel cacti are sensitive to fungal problems caused by excessive moisture and overwatering. Well-draining soil, infrequent watering, and good ventilation will help to prevent these issues.