What is Ferocactus?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2019
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The term Ferocactus refers to a genus of cactus plants that share a barrel-like shape with vertical ribbing and are covered in spines. The genus translates to "fierce cactus" referring to the spines; the cacti in this genus are also commonly known as "barrel cactus" in reference to the shape. The cacti were used in a variety of ways by Native Americans and can also be employed as an emergency water source in the desert. The Ferocactus is commonly found in the southwestern part of North America, and smaller species are often sold as houseplants.

The shape of the Ferocactus usually starts out rounded, and takes on more of a barrel shape as it matures, becoming taller than it is wide. There are about 30 different species in the genus, covering a wide range of sizes from small enough to fir in a small pot to quite massive as seen in the wild. All Ferocactus species share the characteristic vertical ribbing, with some showing deeper ridges than others, and all are densely covered with the heavy protective spines that helped give the genus its name. Brightly colored flowers in shades ranging from yellow to red grow in a ring around the top, giving way to seed packed, inedible small fruits.


Native Americans used the Ferocactus in a variety of ways, such as using the spines for needles, fish hooks, and awls. They also used it as a cooking vessel by slicing off the top and hollowing out the middle, then placing food and hot rocks inside. The flowers could be eaten dried or fresh or boiled to make tea. The seeds could be ground and eaten, and in certain species the flesh of the cactus could be made into a type of candy. The flesh of the cactus contains a high concentration of water and can be used as an emergency water source for travelers in the desert, although in many species it will have an unpleasant taste.

In the wild, the native habitat of the Ferocactus is the desert areas of southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It thrives in a sunny, hot, dry climate with sandy, well drained soil and little rain, although it can tolerate cooler nighttime temperatures. They can be grown from seed and are cultivated for ornamental use in the Southwest, but they are not usually grown as garden plants in other areas.

Smaller species of Ferocactus are sold as potted low maintenance houseplants all over the world. The warm, dry indoor temperatures inside most homes are ideal for a cactus to thrive. The care required is minimal. Most cacti merely need a sunny location, well drained soil, and occasional watering to grow well.



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