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Notes index

Notes on the Barrel Cactus

golden barrel cactus BARREL CACTUS - Ferocactus sp. Astrophytum sp. Bisnaga sp. Echinocactus sp. Homalocephala sp. Thelocactus sp. Thelomastus sp. Barrelcactus, Bisnaga, Bisnagre, Biznaga, Compass Cactus, Devils Head Cactus, Firkin Cactus, Hedge-Hog, Hedgehog Cactus, Igelkaktus, Nigger Head. Russian: Ekhinokaktoos. Takic: Kopash, Kupash. Warihio: Toiwe.

The Barrel Cactus contains spongy flesh, while the Saguaro Cactus has slimy flesh. These cacti are distinguished from each other by the spine clusters.

The seeds are edible. They can be ground into an oily paste which is edible, and can be put into piņole, atole, or tortillas, or eaten raw. Gather them in late summer. The fruit rind of some species is edible raw, fried, stewed, or made into marmalade. It can be dried and stored. It can be very tart like a lime. The fruit which has no residue of green tastes more like lemon. The flowers and buds are generally edible; those of compass barrel are said to be bitter, but not in my personal experience. This may vary from region to region. The young flowers are edible boiled and the older flowers are mashed for a drink. The stem pulp is chewed as an emergency food. The flesh, cooked in sugar, makes the typical cactus candy. The process of cutting open the stem of the plant to obtain the pulp to make jelly or candy is discouraged. The jelly is not very tasty, and this cactus is somewhat rare and should be protected. Save the pulp for emergencies like rattlesnake bite or extreme thirst.


F. wislizenii is the species that contains palatable liquid; other species, particularly the ones with red flowers, contain oxalic acid, which causes nausea and inability to walk. Presumably the liquid could be boiled before drinking to destroy the oxalic acid. An axe or machete is needed to penetrate the tough exterior. Be careful when chopping it; the needles that break off may shoot out and ricochet like bullets. Another method is to use a rock to remove the spines, and then scoop out the crown, and pound the pulp in place. The liquid which results can be drunk. The Army manual SURVIVAL suggests slicing the pulp and eating it raw or carrying it with you as a source of water. It says that the milky juice is an exception to the general rule that milky juices or saps are poisonous. The Indians of Mexico chopped off the tops and exposed the stems to air to obtain moisture. The water is slightly greenish but potable.

Some species of Barrel lean over, pointing south, and can be used as a compass. The spines have been used as phonograph needles, fishhooks, awls, needles, and for tattooing. The cactus was used as a cooking pot. The Indians would cut off the top, scoop out the pulp, and put hot stones and food in the cavity. The Barrel Cactus is precious and has difficulty surviving with humans. Help propagate it by planting its seeds and protecting it from harm. The pulp of all of the Ferocactus is made available to cattle in time of famine or drought. It was fed to pigs. It is cut and split for forage, or cut, doused with kerosene, and burned.


F. cylindraeceus (E. cylindricus?). California Barrel Cactus, Niggerhead Cactus. The fruit is edible. This plant is especially rich in emergency fluid, used as a substitute for water.

E. grusonii (Thelocactus bicolor): Gold Ball Cactus, Golden Barrel. Exotic. Ornamental.

E. laticostatus: Eagle's Claw. The fruit is roughly 2 inches high, yellow when ripe. Individual plants bloom once a year, but the blooming season occurs twice. Boil the buds for 10 minutes, drain and serve with butter, herbs, and a wedge of lime. Simmer the flowers 10 minutes, in water or chicken broth. They can be eaten with chopped onion and cream or milk. Raw flowers can be put into hot mesquite or cactus fruit jelly.

E. polycephalus (E. xeranthemoides): Cottontop Cactus, Many Headed Barrel, Niggerhead Cactus. Kawaiisu: Kuwavibi. Shoshone: Towip. Its spines: Winnoobe. Takic: Uush. The plant tends to grow in lava fields. It does not grow well in cultivation. The bud is edible. The spines are used as awls. The head is made from the lac on Chaparral and Sagebrush.


E. viridescens (F. v., E. limitus) is not a good source of emergency water; the liquid causes upset stomach, diarrhea, aching muscles, and inability to walk. In fact, avoid the tall cactus with red flowers. It can cause temporary paralysis, and has also caused bloody nose, red eyes, and burning urine. The Comcaac said the juice of this cactus is not potable, and that eating the pulp causes headaches. Be careful of any plant located in Comcaac territory.

E. visnaga: (Melocactus ingens, karwinskii, tuberculatus, Echinofossulocactus platyceras, Cereus i., E. i., k., p., t., aulacogonus, edulis, grandis, haageanus, helophora, hystrix, irroratus, karwinskianus, macranthus, minax, oligacanthus, palmeri, saltillensis): Bisnaga. Seri: Siml, Simlaa "true barrel cactus". This species is used to make candy, but I do not recommend it because the species is scarce, and making the candy destroys the plant.

E. wislizenii (F. acanthodes, arizonicus, coloratus, covillei, cylindraecus, emoryi, falconeri, gracilis, horridus, johnsonii, lecontei, orcuttii, peninsulae, phoeniceus, rectispinus, rostii, tiburonensis, tortulospinus, viridescens, viscainensis, w., wislizeni, Echinocactus a., a., californicus, copoldi, covillei, cylindraceus, e., f., hertrichii, j., l., limitus, o., peninsulae, r., r., sclerothrix, thurberi, v., v., Echinomastus arizonicus, johnsonii, Melocactus v., Neolloydia j.): Bisnaga, Bisnagita, Biznaga, California Barrel, California Barrel Cactus, California Barrelcactus, Compass Barrel, Compass Cactus, Coast Barrel Cactus, Coville Barrel, Coville's Barrel Cactus, Fishhook Barrel, Johnson Bisnagita, Johnson's Pineapple Cactus, Keg Cactus, Niggerhead, Small Barrel Cactus, Southwest Barrelcactus, Spiny Barrel, Visnaga, Viznaga, Wislizenius Barrel Cactus. Akimel: Chiavul. Seri: Mojepe siml "saguaro barrel cactus", Siml caacol "large barrel cactus", Siml coquicot "killer barrel cactus", Caail iti siml "dry lake barrel cactus", siml yapxot cheel "red flowered barrel cactus". Serrano: Kopahm. Takic: Kupash, Kopahs. Tohono: Desperation Fruit.


F. rectispinus has central spines up to 25 cm in length. The buds and flowers are edible boiled, and the fruit raw. The seeds are also edible ground and roasted. The flowers taste like Brussels sprouts. They can be cooked in water with sugar added, or they can be cooked in hot earth. Boil the buds for 10 minutes, drain and serve with butter, herbs, and a wedge of lime. Simmer the flowers 10 minutes, in water or chicken broth. They can be eaten with chopped onion and cream or milk. Raw flowers can be put into hot mesquite or cactus fruit jelly. The seeds and fruit are edible and are quite delicious. They are ripe when the pod is yellow. The fruit tastes like lemon, with a texture somewhat like a very firm green pepper. The fruit can be peeled with a potato peeler and used to make jelly. The seeds can be collected and ground into gruel, or eaten with the fruit. The pulp of the upper 2/3 of the cactus is edible raw. It is white, juicy, and spongy. It can be good or terrible. The bigger it is, and the more water it has, the better it tastes. When young, the plant makes good greens. The buds are edible gathered over several months. Although they can be eaten fresh, parboiling them will remove the bitterness. They can be dried in the sun for storage. Recook the dried buds in water. Add seasoning. To prepare them fresh, make a mesquite fire, and when it is reduced to ashes, place rocks on top, then damp sand, then leaves or cloth, then the buds, followed by more leaves and then sand. Build a fire on top of that. Cook for several hours. The buds can then be dried for storage also, and will last several seasons. The mature flowers can be cooked in the same manner. Or, fry the buds and mix them with chili or condiments. They can be canned. Cut off the top and mash the pulp. Cut off the spines and epidermis, cut into slices, and cook in sugar.

A large quantity of tasteless liquid, used to replace water in emergencies, can be obtained from this species. To obtain emergency water, put dry Limberbush (Jatropha cuneata) stems around the base and set them afire to burn off the spines. Then uproot the cactus and chop it open. Scrape out the pulp. Or, poke it with sticks until it is mashed. Squeeze the liquid out of the pulp with the hands, and let the liquid fall into a container. Or, cut off the top and remove some pulp to make a depression. Squeeze the removed pulp into the depression. Or, pound the tissue while it is still inside. The flesh is also a thirst quencher. Or, pound the inside pulp, and let liquid accumulate in the cavity. It is said a leaning plant has more water. Rest after drinking the liquid, or you will experience pain in the limbs. Try to drink it after eating meat rather than on an empty stomach. If the stomach is empty, you may get diarrhea. The stems do not supply sufficient water, but will quench thirst and aid in survival. Large quantities of the juice, a pint or more, make most folks vomit. The pulp can be carried and the liquid squeezed out at your destination. It can be used to make coffee.


The pulp of this cactus is the best remedy for rattlesnake bites. The best time to gather it is October or November. Cut out some of the pulp from the lower third of the cactus. Run it through a meat grinder; throw away the first cup of pulp to eliminate impurities in the grinder. Grind the remainder until it is about like hamburger. Save the juice. Place pulp and juice into a clean wide-mouth mouth canning jar. Mix with one tsp. Vitamin C crystals per 8 ounces. Work out all the air with a clean stick. Place the lid on loosely. Store it in a cool dark place such as the refrigerator for 7 days, when it will reach its greatest potency. Within a month, the preparation may overflow its container. When this happens, tighten the lid. The mixture will keep 2 years or more at moderate temperature and darkness. Freezing causes spoilage. To use it, place 8 oz. in a loosely woven cloth such as cheese cloth to hold it together, and place on the bite as a poultice. Unless there is a bubble of venom just under the skin, it is not necessary to cut the wound at all. Leave the poultice until the bite is healed, half a day or more. Abstain from heavy food; fast if you can. Drink herb tea of wild grape leaf, black cohosh, bistort root, gentian root, walnut bark, or chaparral. If the poultice is made fresh and not cured, lance the bite first. Be careful not to cut veins, arteries, or tendons. A slab of the cactus with the spines removed is salted roasted in coals until the juice runs out, and then wrapped in cloth and put on an aching body part.

The plant itself can be made into a pot. Cut off the top and dig out the interior. Put water in it and heat it with hot stones. Or, cut it off at the ground and burn away the spines with a brush fire or cut off with a knife. Cut off the top and scrape out the inside. Put a stick through the edges at the top and a loop of twine on that, for a handle. This can be used to carry honey, and then the candied plant sliced and eaten, or it can be used to carry water or to make wine. This plant is browsed. Deer, rodents, squirrels and birds eat the fruit. Animals will break the spines to eat the plant. The spines damage horses by getting caught in the flesh. The plant is rare; plant its seeds and protect it.

Sclerocactus sp. Fishhook Cactus, Pincushion. These cacti tolerate frost better than most cacti.

Pediocactus sp. Pincushion. These plants tolerate freezes much better than most cacti.


Notes index