Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus)

The Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) is a commonly seen resident of the desert southwest and its range includes California, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico. The Barrel cactus gets its name from its short stocky appearance which is said to resemble a barrel. Despite its name, this succulent can grow over 6 feet tall and thrives in gravelly, rocky and / or sandy soils and are typically seen below 5000 feet in elevation.

A Barrel Cactus on a rock out-cropping in the Mojave National Preserve.
A Barrel Cactus on a rock out-cropping in the Mojave National Preserve.

The Barrel Cactus is covered in spines which when new, are straight and red in appearance, and will turn gray in color and curve as they age. This species blooms yellow or red flowers on the top of the plant, which typically happens in the spring. Like its name sake, this desert nomad will swell with fluid during the monsoons to survive the long dry periods of the desert heat.

Some Native Americans utilized this plant as a cooking vessel. It is said that they would remove the top of the plant and remove the pulp from the interior. Hot stones were place inside along with the food. Additionally, the long heavy spins were utilized as needles.

There are fifteen different species of this cactus.

Mojave Mound Cactus ( Echinocereus mohavensis )

The Mojave Mound Cactus or Claret Cup Cactus boasts a bright red - orange flower blossom.
The Mojave Mound Cactus or Claret Cup Cactus boasts a bright red – orange flower blossom.

The Mojave Mound Cactus ( Echinocereus mohavensis ) is a cactus of many names and it also known as the claret cup cactus, hedgehog and kingcup cactus. It is native to the desert southwest of the united states and parts of Mexico. The cactus can be found in a variety of habitats including rocky slopes, scrub, low desert and mountain woodland.

This is a small barrel shaped cactus, which will range in color between light green and bluish green stems. As the name implies, this is a mounding cactus with may form up to 500 cylindrical stems with create a bulbous mound. This low lying cactus only grows to about 16 inches in height, while is clusters of spines can grow up to 1.5 inches long.

The funnel shaped waxy flowers range in color from orange to red to a dull scarlet color. The plant is commonly found at altitudes of 3500 to 9000 feet in elevation. This beautiful little cactus is known to locate Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave Desert and parts of Nevada.

This delightful specimen was found in the spring on the Pine Nut trail about 50 miles outside of Las Vegas, nestled among from boulders.

Beavertail Prickly Pear (opuntia basilaris)

The Beavertail Prickly Pear cactus (opuntia basilaris) is very common in the desert south west, and would go most of the year most of the year without a second glance.  However this species of cactus exemplifies the best of what the desert has to offer in one symbol.

Beavertail Prickly Pear. Photograph by James L Rathbun
Beavertail Prickly Pear. Photograph by James L Rathbun

The Beavertail Prickly Pear grows in clumps, low to the ground and grows horizontally rather than vertically like the iconic saguaro.  The dull greenish grey leaves grows feature a complete lack of spines and a shaped which gives the plant it’s name.  The pads of this cactus lake the spines traditionally associated with cactus, but rather the pads are covered with minuscule, gray-blue bristles which feature barbed tips which easily puncture human skin.

Each spring the cactus puts on a display of wild flowers which is amazing to behold in the arid desert environments.  Typically starting the March, each cactus pad my put out several shoots which Colosseum in a burst of colors, most commonly a vibrant pink but also known to be yellow, white or rose colored.

Beavertail Cactus found off the Mormon Wells Road, Las Vegas, Nevada
Beavertail Cactus found off the Mormon Well Road, Las Vegas, Nevada

The cactus typically grows in  rocky , sandy plains, valleys, washes & canyons  all over Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Northern Mexico.