Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   



Flora Fact

Barbed Barrel

This barrel cactus’ unique spines
can be used as fishhooks.

Thirsty desert dwellers and travelers may have turned to the barrel cactus to quench their thirst in desperate times. This cactus does contain water, but that water harbors oxalic acid, which can cause intestinal problems. Plus, a poke from the sharp spines would be hard to avoid. Thanks, but no thanks.

Fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni) can be found in the desert regions of far West Texas, though it is rare. Its range stretches into Arizona and Mexico. The cactus is round in its early stages, then oval or cylindrical as it grows, resembling a spiky barrel. With a lifespan of 50 to 100 years, it commonly grows to 3 to 6 feet tall, sometimes reaching 10 feet, with a diameter of roughly 2 feet.

The barrel cactus features distinct vertical ribs densely covered with sharp spines — many spines are curved like a fishhook. Yellow to red-orange flowers and fruit appear on the top of the plant during summer months. The fruits are eaten by mule deer and small mammals.  


Fishhook barrel cacti generally lean to the south, toward the sun, earning them the nickname “compass barrel cactus.” The cactus can lean so far that it falls sideways, pulling its roots out of the ground.

The barrel cactus grows in gravelly or sandy soils, commonly in desert washes or on shallow slopes at the base of rocky hills at 1,000 to 5,000 feet of elevation.

The spines can be used as fishhooks (hence the name fishhook barrel cactus). Native Americans collected and ate the flowers of the plant, dried or fresh, and the tiny black seeds were ground and eaten as well. The pulp can be used for making jelly.

El Paso’s Franklin Mountains are the only known location of the barrel cactus in Texas. See more about the region in this month's Wanderlist.

 Laura Adams;  chloe7992 | Dreamstime.com

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