Barrel Cactus Flowers

August 3, 2012

We live in a part of the desert that is naturally favorable for “barrel gardens”, or high concentrations of the Arizona barrel cactus, Ferocactus wislizenii.  (This isn’t Arizona’s only barrel cactus species, but it is the most common.)  This has become less obvious in the past five years, as the nearby land has been increasingly bladed, degraded, deflated, and desertified.  But one oasis is still producing bouncing baby barrels:  our quarter-acre yard!  In July 2000 when we moved in, there was only one barrel in the yard:  a large one just over three feet tall (now about five feet) that probably sprouted about the time the house was built in 1969, but may be older.  Since then we’ve accumulated more than a dozen young wild barrel cacti, as well as several salvaged plants from a neighbor’s yard.  Although they require full sun and well-drained desert soil, barrels need a wet year in order to sprout and become established as tiny young cacti.  The years 2000, 2005, and 2010 were wet enough.  At first, the cactus produces a radiating network of roots.  It is very vulnerable to drought and cold at this stage.  Eventually (usually before it reaches two inches in diameter) it sinks a central taproot, the “umbilical cord” that will draw most of the water and anchor the plant.  After this it can grow quite quickly if there is plenty of water, or it can sit semi-dormant for dry months or years.  One of our barrels sprouted next to an alley that gets a lot of flowing water during storms, and I put a ring of large red sandstone boulders around it to protect it and help slow down evaporation from the soil.  So it grew very quickly, and this year it is blooming for the first time:

Barrel Cactus Flower

Barrel Cactus Flower

Here’s the whole plant:

Arizona Barrel - Ferocactus wislizenii

Arizona Barrel – Ferocactus wislizenii

For size comparison, here’s the same plant in the snow in February 2009:

Baby Barrel Cactus

Baby Barrel Cactus

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