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Barrel cacti of some species easily reach over 1 metre (3.3 ft) in height at maturity, and have been known to reach 10 feet in some regions. The ribs are numerous and pronounced, and the spines are long and can range in color from yellow to tan to red, depending on the age of the plant and the species. Flowers appear at the top of the plant only after many years.
Barrel cactus buds typically start to bloom in April with a bright yellow or orange flower. Pink and red varieties also exist but occur less frequently. The flowers only appear on the very top of the plant. As the flowers begin to wilt in early May, they may change color. A late summer desert rainstorm can produce a late bloomer as shown in the photo of the orange flowered variety (it bloomed two days after a rain storm in mid August and then continued to bloom right through the end of September).
One should approach a barrel cactus with extreme caution. A puncture to human skin from one of the spines is considered a 'dirty wound'. If the puncture is deep enough to draw blood, antibiotics may be needed; and could take up to several months for the wound to heal properly. Barrel cactus plants are one of the more dangerous cacti to humans in the desert.
As the flowers wilt away, small pineapple-shaped greenish fruit may form. Left untouched, the fruit has been known to last a full calendar year.
Their fruits can be easily removed but are not usually consumed because they are fairly dry and bitter to the taste.
Native Americans collected the fruit as emergency food during extreme drought conditions.
Barrel cacti can fall over because they grow based on sun orientation. They usually grow towards the south to prevent surface tissue sunburn, giving the name "compass cactus."
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Fishhook Barrel Cactus with fruit.
Barrel cactus cluster in Sahuarita, Arizona.
Barrel cactus at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum botanical garden.
Blooming barrel cactus in the Mojave Desert, California.
Late blooming barrel cactus in Landers, California.