California Barrel Cactus Guide: How to Grow & Care for “Ferocactus Cylindraceus”

Our Guide to the California Barrel Cactus - Everything you will ever need to know! Tips for planting and caring for "Ferocactus Cylindraceus"
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Cacti are among the most popular and beloved houseplants and for a good reason. They are easy-to-care-for and incredibly cute. From the large variety of cacti available in specialty stores, you can choose the Barrel Cactus.

Barrel cacti get their botanical name, Ferocactus cylindraceus, from the Latin prefix ‘ferox’, meaning ferocious, wild, or fierce, and ‘cylindraceus’ that means cylindrical.

Many cacti in this group have long­, hooked spines; however, they are well behaved in a garden setting. They are key elements in very dry landscapes, especially in the warmer parts of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.

Ferocactus is native to central and southern Arizona, southwestern Utah in the Mojave Desert, inland Southern California, Baja California, and Sonora, Mexico.

Ferocactus cylindraceus (also labeled Ferocactus acanthodes) has many common names: Compass Barrel, California Barrel, Cliff Barrel, Spiny Barrel Cactus, Desert Barrel, Golden-Spined Barrel, etc. As it reaches maturity, the Compass Barrel cactus tends to tilt towards the southwest and that’s how it got this peculiar nickname.

Ferocactus cylindraceus was first described by the German-American botanist George Engelmann in 1853. George Engelmann (1809-1884) was particularly active in the Rocky Mountains and northern Mexico, contributing to the study of flora in the west of North America.

California Barrel Cactus
California Barrel Cactus

About the California Barrel Cactus

  • Ferocactus cylindraceus is found in California, Arizona, and northern Mexico at altitudes of 600-1500 meters (2000-5000 feet). It grows alongside many remarkable plants such as Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert and Ocotillo plants in Ocotillo Wells deserts and the Anza-Borrego.
  • The barrel cacti are quite versatile as they can tolerate temperatures as low as -7 ºC (20 ºF).
  • They are perennials that prefer rocky locations. Sometimes, they grow directly out of crevices in canyon walls. The Barrel cacti are very stiff and grow in drier situations than other members of the Ferocactus genus.
  • Young barrel cacti are round and usually produce deep red spines. In time, they start to grow upright and to produce lighter spines.
  • Ferocactus cyl. is superb for rock gardens. Try combining compass barrel with desert agave and hedgehog species (Echinocactus) or beardtongue species that grow in rocky habitat.
  • The Compass barrel cactus is a real help for lost travelers who can’t find their way in the desert because it tends to slant towards the southwest.
  • So, if you will ever be lost in the desert without a compass, remember to look for a compass barrel cactus to find your way.
  • Some specialists consider that the name “compass barrel” is sometimes misapplied to Ferocactus cylindraceus, which grows straight up in its old age, instead of slanting as would Ferocactus wislizeni.
  • Ferocactus cylindraceus is not toxic to children or pets, although it’s best to keep them away from its fierce spines. Make sure to recognize the exact type of cactus that you have, as some varieties can be poisonous.
Ferocactus cylindraceus in the wild
Ferocactus cylindraceus in the wild

California Barrel Cactus features: an Overview

  • There are several Barrel cactus varieties known to us and they belong to two genus types, the Echinocactus and the Ferocactus. The Echinocactus has a hazy crown of fine spines, while the Ferocactus has sharp spines.
  • Ferocactus cylindraceus can reach a height of 3 m (9,5 feet) and 50 cm (20 inches) in diameter, usually found individually, rarely branched. The stem has 20-30 ribs vertical or spirally arranged.
  • The central spines are quite remarkable and they are placed in groups of 4-7 per areole. These large spines are variously colored in white, red, yellow, or brown and are often curved.
  • Each central spine is 5 to 15 cm (1,75 to 6 inches) long. Radial spines, resembling the spokes of a wheel, appear below the central spine clusters. They are much smaller, almost hair-like, and often white, in clusters of 15-25.
  • It’s best to handle your barrel cacti with thick gloves when replanting.
  • Yellow (rarely red or orange) blooms form a ring on the top of the cylinder, like a hat. They are funnel-shaped, 4 to 6 cm (1,5-2 inches) in diameter and 3 to 6 cm (1-2 inches) long. Rarely, the flowers have a middle red stripe.
  • Most barrel cacti have flowers that grow in rings around their tops, but they are more sought after for their colored (gold, red, pink, or grey) spines than their flowers.
  • The fruits are 3-4 cm (1-1½ inch), bright yellow, and leathery or fleshy.
  • In a favorably warm spot, barrel cacti can eventually grow as tall as a man. So, the Seri Indian name for the barrel cactus translates to “thinks it’s a saguaro.” (Saguaro is a giant cactus, branched like a candelabra, that can grow to 20 m (66 feet) height).
  • The large, fierce spines reject desert creatures that might otherwise peck on the succulent tissue, and the smaller spines provide a measure of protection against the burning sun by reflecting the sunlight and shading the stem.
  • It is said that the Barrel cactus contains a reservoir of water suitable for reducing the thirst of desert travelers. Rather than being full of water like a barrel, the Ferocactus stem contains wet, spongy tissue, and obtaining enough for drinking is extremely difficult.
  • Native solitary bees pollinate barrel cacti flowers almost exclusively in order to set fruit and produce seed.
  • Known for their hardiness, cacti do eventually reach the end of their lives and when they do, dead cactus tissue provides a habitat for numerous species of insects, which in turn feed many other desert animals. Everybody has an important role to play in the fragile balance of a desert ecosystem.
  • Native people have long depended on the barrel cactus flowers and seeds as a source of food; the large stems were sometimes hollowed out to cooking pots, and the cactus spines were used as needles.

Ferocactus Cylindraceus Seeds, From Amazon

Growing the California Barrel Cactus

The barrel cactus can be grown indoors as a houseplant or outdoors, in arid gardens and it makes an attractive addition to any cacti and succulent collection.

Caring for the Barrel cactus is quite easy, and it makes a great houseplant for a novice gardener. Location, water, soil, and container are the important things to consider when growing a barrel cactus.

Barrel cacti require a sunny location, minimal watering, and a well-drained potting mix. Potted cacti should be kept in a bright sunny location, in the warmest room of your home. However, direct southern sunlight may burn the plant in the really hot summer, so you should move them back from the window or turn on your blinds to diffuse the light.

When grown in a garden, make sure they receive enough sunlight. Full to partial sun is optimal for barrel cacti. If you live in a region with warm winters, it is better to grow the Barrel cacti outdoors rather than indoors.

Warmth throughout the year will increase your success at growing barrel cacti as these plants require minimum temperatures above 5°C.

During the summer it is best to keep the plants outside even if the temperatures rise above 30° C. Barrel cacti love thrive in the heat of the summer. However, they do need a period of cool rest in winter to produce flowers in spring.

Needles of the California Barrel Cactus
Needles of the California Barrel Cactus

Planting Barrel Cacti

The soil for Ferocactus should contain mainly sand with a little perlite, topsoil, and compost. Store-bought succulent and cacti mixes are a good option when growing barrel cacti indoors. Unglazed pots are best for potted cacti because they allow the evaporation of excess water.

When growing barrel cacti outdoors, avoid situations where your plants could sit in water by planting them on heaps. Use long tweezers to remove weeds that grow in the spine net.

Repotting is also an important part of cacti care. The most important rule is to repot when the roots start showing through the drainage holes. The soil should be dry when you repot barrel cacti and the container should be slightly larger than the plant.

Watch for infestations with scale insects, mealybugs, or spider mites. Rot is only a minor problem and as long as your cacti are watered and “aired” correctly, you won’t have to worry about it.

Watering the Barrel Cactus

The barrel cactus can be quite wonderful when it is well-cared for. A very important element to consider when caring for Barrel cactus is the water. This succulent type requires typical watering as the other succulents. The best method of watering a barrel cactus is the ‘soak and dry’ technique and it consists of allowing the soil to dry completely between waterings. By using this watering method you will keep your Barrel Cactus happy healthy.

The barrel cactus is native to arid desert regions and usually has only rainwater to supply its humidity needs. In summer, you should water your Barrel cactus once per week.

The Ferocactus doesn’t need much water in winter when it is dormant, so you can neglect your cactus during the cold months.

Adequate watering in spring may encourage the plant to bloom and to reward you with a large yellow flower. If you’re lucky enough, the cactus will produce edible fruit.

Wet feet are the enemy, so keep in mind that barrel cacti should not sit in water.

As mentioned above, the barrel cactus naturally grows in low fertility zones, so their nutrient needs are low. Fertilize your barrel cactus once a year, in spring, at the end of its dormancy period. A good formula for the Barrel cactus is low nitrogen liquid fertilizer. The quantity of fertilizer will depend on the size of your pot and plant. Check the packaging for guidance on the exact amount.

Desert Barrel Cactus close-up
Desert Barrel Cactus close-up

Propagating the Barrel Cactus

Barrel cacti can be easily grown from seeds, which are the only way of propagating these friendly plants. To obtain barrel cactus seeds, allow the fruits to ripen. It is worth mentioning that the fruit must be overripe before picking the seeds. You will have to clean them and to wait for them to dry before planting them.

Fill a flat container with succulent and cacti soil mix and sow the seeds on the surface of the soil. Sprinkle a thin layer of sand on top of the seeds and then mist evenly. Cover the flat with a plastic wrap or lid and keep it in a warm place.

When the seeds germinate and show signs of growth you can safely transfer them to a larger pot. Always use gloves when handling Ferocactus, as their fierce spines can be painful.

In Conclusion

Ferocactus cylindraceus is a round, large barrel-shaped cactus covered with a dense net of spines. The spines vary in color from red to brown to yellow and look like harsh, coarse hair combed up toward the tip of the plant. After a thorough rain, the spines glow and the barrel cacti look even more magnificent.

It is an easy-to-care-for cactus that requires few things to thrive. So, as long as you keep it warm, water it during its growing times, and protected during hibernation it will reward you with beautiful flowers and various colored spines that are sure to brighten up your day.

Barrel cacti are protected in many places so they should never be damaged or removed from their natural habitat, but you can always find them in online stores and at experienced cacti growers.

Are you growing barrel cacti? Share your experience in the comments below!

Miruna Secuianu

Miruna is an experienced content writer with a passion for gardening. She is the proud owner of an outdoor rose garden and an indoor collection of tiny succulents. She bought her first succulent 10 years ago - an adorable Echeveria Setosa. Now she owns more than 100 succulents and cacti of different colors, shapes, and sizes. Miruna is a versatile writer and, as you might have guessed, her favorite topic is gardening. Contact

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