Barrel cactus is distributed in southeastern Arizona from Maricopa and
Pima to Greenlee and Cochise counties, east to southern New Mexico from
Hidalgo County to southwestern Lincoln County, and in El Paso County,
Texas. Barrel cactus is also found in Mexico to Sinaloa and Chihuahua
[1,17,36,38]. It is cultivated in Hawaii .
Regional Distribution in the Western United States
This species can be found in the following regions of the western United States (according to the Bureau of Land Management classification of Physiographic Regions of the western United States):
7 Lower Basin and Range
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont
14 Great Plains
Occurrence in North America
Barrel cactus is a native stem succulent that is barrel-shaped or
sometimes columnar with rarely more than one stem. It ranges from 2
to 10 feet (3 m) tall, with a diameter of 18 to 33 inches (45-83 cm).
Barrel cactus has 20 to 28 ribs. The spines are dense, somewhat
obscuring the surface of the stem. There are four central spines per
areole, the larger ones 1.5 to 2 inches (3.8-5.0 cm) long, and 12 to 20
radial spines to 1.8 inches (4.5 cm) in length. Flowers form on growth
of the current season near the stem apex. The fruit is yellow,
barrel-shaped, and fleshy at maturity [1,17,36].
According to Cannon , the root system of barrel cactus is shallow and
confined to the upper soil layers. At one site a main anchoring root
extended down to about 8 inches (20 cm) and had several short laterals.
Horizontal roots originated from the root crown and were very shallow.
Depth of burial decreased with distance from the plant and ranged from
0.6 to 1.2 inches (1.5-3.0 cm). Roots were often exposed after rain
Barrel cactus is found on rocky, gravelly, or sandy soils of hills,
flats, canyons, wash margins, and alluvial fans in desert shrublands and
grasslands from 990 to 5,280 feet (300-1,600 m) elevation [1,35,38]. It
also extends into woodland communities occurring at elevations below
6,500 feet (1,970 m) . Barrel cactus is frost-sensitive , which
is a limiting site factor at higher elevations and northern latitudes.
Key Plant Community Associations
Barrel cactus is primarily found in desert grassland and desert shrub
habitats in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts [1,5,14,27]. It also
extends into communities at higher elevations in interior chaparral and
is found in the Madrean evergreen woodland in encinal woodlands with a
mixture of evergreen oaks (Quercus spp.) and junipers (Juniperus spp.)
[5,14]. Barrel cactus is not listed as a dominant or codominant species
in available publications.
Some species generally associated with barrel cactus include prickly
pear or cholla (Opuntia spp.), acacia (Acacia spp.), ocotillo (Fouqueria
splendens), yucca (Yucca spp.), saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), grama
(Bouteloua spp.), and threeawn (Aristida spp.) [3,4,18,21].
Habitat: Plant Associations
This species is known to occur in association with the following plant community types (as classified by Küchler 1964):
More info for the terms: cactus, shrub
K023 Juniper - pinyon woodland
K027 Mesquite bosque
K031 Oak - juniper woodlands
K040 Saltbush - greasewood
K042 Creosotebush - bursage
K043 Paloverde - cactus shrub
K044 Creosotebush - tarbush
K046 Desert: vegetation largely lacking
K053 Grama - galleta steppe
K054 Grama - tobosa prairie
K058 Grama - tobosa shrubsteppe
This species is known to occur in the following ecosystem types (as named by the U.S. Forest Service in their Forest and Range Ecosystem [FRES] Type classification):
More info for the term: shrub
FRES30 Desert shrub
FRES33 Southwestern shrubsteppe
FRES34 Chaparral - mountain shrub
FRES35 Pinyon - juniper
FRES40 Desert grasslands
Habitat: Cover Types
This species is known to occur in association with the following cover types (as classified by the Society of American Foresters):
239 Pinyon - juniper
241 Western live oak
Plant Response to Fire
Average mortalities of 50 to 67 percent have been reported for barrel
cactus within the first 2 years following fire in desert grassland and
desert shrub communities in southern Arizona [13,15,23,32,37].
Two consecutive winters of heavy rain produced enough fuel to carry a
fire in a portion of the Sonoran Desert where fire is usually considered
ecologically insignificant. Following the Granite Fire in Arizona in
June 1979, large-diameter cacti including barrel cactus had the lowest
mortality rate of all cacti. Many severely burned plants survived and
produced flowers and seeds. An average of 20 plants per hectare
occurred on unburned sites, and 15 plants per hectare occurred on burns
in postfire years 1 and 2. Barrel cactus had an overall mortality rate
of 59 percent in burned areas within the first 19 postfire months .
Barrel cactus had an average of 6 percent and 31 percent mortality on
unburned and burned sites, respectively, following fires in semidesert
grasslands on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and in the
Sierrita Mountains of southern Arizona. Plants were counted within 11
to 14 postfire months. Barrel cactus also had significantly greater
(p less than .001) fire mortality when under a mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) canopy
(53%) than in open grassy areas (19%) .
Immediate Effect of Fire
Barrel cactus plants more than 1 foot (0.3 m) tall are rarely killed by
fire since only their spines are combustible. However, plants less than
that height may suffer up to 75 percent mortality as a direct result of
fire damage to the apical meristem, or a combination of fire damage to
the meristem and damage from herbivory .
Succculents in general rarely actually burn, but spines may ignite and
carry flames to the apex. The cactus body may scorch and blister
without pyrolysis, leaving undamaged parts of the plant alive.
Mortality results from death of the photosynthetic tissue and underlying
cambium and phloem. Cacti may appear completely scorched with no green
tissue visible, yet survive fire. However, fire can cause delayed
mortality, which may not occur for months or even years . Removal
of the spines also increases subsequent herbivory [23,30]. Survival of
succulents depends primarily on protection of the apical meristem. If
the apical meristem is undamaged, the cactus will resume growth .
Large succulents such as barrel cactus have a thick cortex that
insulates the vascular tissue. The cortex thickens with age, so older
individuals may be more resistant to fire than younger ones. Taller
individuals are more likely to survive fire because the apical meristem
may be above flame height. Cacti escape fire in refugia and in areas
with fuels too sparse to carry fire. Cacti do not appear to store seed
in soil seedbanks .
Although desert vegetation rarely burns completely due to a lack of
continuous fuels, unusually heavy winter rains may produce a cover of
annual species dense enough to carry a fire when cured. Fires resulting
from this situation tend to occur at the desert-desert grassland ecotone
, a common habitat of barrel cactus. Thomas  has cited
references suggesting that fire intervals in desert grasslands may be as
short as 3 to 40 years. Repeated fires may be disastrous to barrel
cactus populations, whose recovery period has been estimated at more
than 15 years . Most desert habitat does not produce enough
vegetation to support frequent fires. If frequent fires do occur they
gradually reduce succulent populations, although a small percentage of
individuals may survive in refugia .
More info for the term: climax
Barrel cactus' life span has been reported to be from 50  to 130
years . It is a climax member of the desert grassland .
Glendening  stated that barrel cactus reproduces from seeds only,
which are dispersed by birds and rodents [10,38]. No offsets were
reported after fires in southern Arizona; growth was from the apical
meristem only . Ferocactus species will often branch at the apex
following injury to the terminal bud .
Limiting factors for germination of barrel cactus seeds are temperature
and light. Greatest germination takes place at 68 to 86 degrees
Fahrenheit (20-30 deg C) after at least 8 hours of light. Seeds do not
germinate in the dark .
Growth Form (according to Raunkiær Life-form classification)
Life History and Behavior
Glendening  and Brown  reported that barrel cactus increased over
17- or 18-year periods, respectively, on desert grasslands of Arizona.
Both studies included treatments that excluded cattle and rabbits (no
grazing), excluded cattle only (light grazing), and contained areas open
to grazing. The following average numbers of barrel cactus plants under
each treatment were reported by Glendening  on the Santa Rita
No grazing Light grazing Open
1932 0 0.5 0.5
1949 30.5 24.0 5.0
Blydenstein  stated that there was no significant difference in
frequency of barrel cactus between lightly grazed desert shrub
communities and communities that had been protected from grazing for 50
Barrel cactus populations are negatively affected by urban development
and cactus collection .
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Other uses and values
Native Americans have used barrel cactus pulp for making jelly and
cactus candy [19,36]. Barrel cactus is extensively collected and used
in landscaping themes and cactus gardens .
Barrel cactus fruits are reported to be highly digestible (greater than
50% of dry matter) by mule deer. The following in vitro dry matter
digestibility (DMD) and nutrient values (%) were reported for barrel
cactus fruits in different seasons on the Santa Rita Experimental Range
in southern Arizona :
Spring Summer Fall Winter
DMD 59.5 78.1 60.9 73.5
Protein 7.8 8.6 6.2 10.8
Phosphorous 0.20 0.21 0.18 0.23
P/Ca 0.65 0.48 0.47 0.61
Importance to Livestock and Wildlife
Barrel cactus is often consumed by cattle and rabbits if the spines are
removed by a disturbance such as fire [10,14,34].
Mule deer in the Sonoran Desert readily consume barrel cactus fruits.
Mule deer diets consisted of 35.6, 42.5, 5.4, and 1.9 percent barrel
cactus fruits in the fall, winter, spring, and summer, respectively
[24,25]. Collared peccary also consume barrel cactus fruits when they
are available .
Barrel cactus seeds are eaten by many birds .
Names and Taxonomy
southwestern barrel cactus
The currently accepted scientific name of barrel cactus is Ferocactus
wislizenii (Engelm.) Britt. & Rose (Cactaceae) [1,36,38]. There are no
recognized subspecies, varieties, or forms.
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