Blue Barrel Cactus Care – Growing Blue Barrel Cactus Plants

Blue Barrel Cactus Care – Growing Blue Barrel Cactus Plants

By: Mary Ellen Ellis

The blue barrel cactus is an attractive member of the cactus and succulent family, with its perfectly-round shape, bluish color, and pretty spring flowers. If you are in a colder or wetter climate, blue barrel cactus care in an indoor container is simple.

About Blue Barrel Cactus Plants

The scientific name for blue barrel cactus is Ferocactus glaucescens, and it is native to eastern and central areas of Mexico, especially the state of Hidalgo. It tends to grow in the mountains between the rocks and as part of the native juniper woodlands and shrub habitat.

Barrel cacti get their name from the shape and growth type, which is round and squat. They grow as solitary barrels until older when new heads grow to create a mound. The color is a rich gray- or blue-green, and the barrel is ridged with clusters of spines. The main barrel grows up to 22 inches (55 cm.) in height and 20 inches (50 cm.) across. In the spring, you’ll get funnel-shaped yellow flowers at the crown, followed by round, white fruits.

How to Grow a Blue Barrel Cactus

Growing blue barrel cactus is easy, although it will grow slowly. Give it a rich soil that drains well and a sunny spot. If growing it in a container, drainage is crucial, as any standing water can quickly cause rot.

Water to get it established, but then only water when there has been a drought or too little rain. It is also necessary to avoid wetting the cactus above the soil line when watering if it is in full sun. This can cause burning on the surface.

If growing in a container, eight inches (20 cm.) in diameter is big enough if you want to keep the cactus compact in size. But you can also choose a larger pot to give it more room and allow it to grow to a bigger size. Be sure your blue barrel gets enough sun indoors, and consider taking it outside for the summer if it’s not too wet.

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The blue barrel cactus is an eye-catching participant of the cactus and also delicious household, with its perfectly-round form, blue shade, and also quite springtime blossoms. Expand this outdoors if you live in a desert environment. Blue barrel cactus treatment in an interior container is basic if you are in a cooler or wetter environment.

Blue Cacti for Landscaping

Many cacti are ornamental for a variety of reasons: their spines, their overall shape and size, or their amazing flowers. But some cacti are simply amazing for the color of their skin. There are many species of blue cacti and these can make some of the most beautiful and striking landscape plants for desert gardens.

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 23, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questins.)

I grow many different plants, and each new one I acquire seems like my new favorite plant. But after a time the newness wears off, and I sometimes don't notice the new plants anymore. I do notice plants that are spectacular and continually draw my eye to them, even if I have been looking at them for years. Many plants do this to me and often I get so distracted, I forget why I went out in the yard in the first place. Some of the top contenders for distraction are the blue cacti. They are distractive because they look so different and really stand out due to their unique colors many of them are simply great looking and highly ornamental anyway.

There are many plants that have a bluish hue including aloes, agaves, palms, cycads and conifers. But none of them seem as blue as some of the blue cacti. And the great thing about the cacti is that they are so carefree and easy to take care of, requiring virtually no care except when a rare freeze comes in. Some of the bluer cacti seem to be the most cold-sensitive. All are sun-lovers and seem to be happiest when it's super hot and they are in full, blazing sun (not all cacti like this weather, but the blue ones sure do.)

Pilosocereus sp. I found at a nursery see how it stands out!

The following are some of the blue cacti I have some experience with. This barely scratches the surface of what is out there I am not an expert on cacti, so I don't really know what I am missing.

Browningia.This is a relatively small genus of cacti from South America, with at least one spectacular blue species, Browningia hertlingianus (also known as Azureocereus hertlingianus.) It is also one of my favorite cacti in the yard and supposedly one of the more tender cactus species. This is a Peruvian species with knobby columns and golden spines to contrast with the powder blue to blue-green color. Mine has done fairly well during cold spells, but I have it against the house facing the afternoon sun, so that may have helped it survive the big freeze we had a few years ago.

(left) My own Browningia hertlingianus at purchase. (middle) Close up. (right) Needing support (notice where the tape has worn off the bloom showing a 'normal' green color underneath.)

Cereus. This is a huge genus of cacti, many which are blue or have a bluish cast--far too many for me to go into in this article, so I will just touch on a few of the more spectacular ones I have in my garden, and those seen at the local botanical gardens.

Cereus aethiops is a Brazilian species (so many blue cacti come from Brazil!) with ornamental jet-black spines and a knobby blue-green column. This is one of the more difficult species to manipulate in my garden as its long, thin, sharp black spines go right through my cactus gloves. But it's a nice looking plant in the landscape, though I understand it eventually becomes a gigantic sprawling monster and I will have to yank it out before it does. My Cereus aethiops has not had noticeable problems with cold.

(left) My own Cereus aethiops showing spines (new growth turns bluer with age.) (middle) In flower. (right) Crammed among other cacti and succulents in the garden an exceptionally blue Agave tequiliana makes the Cereus look a lot less blue than it is.

Cereus hankeanus is another Brazilian blue species that has a good deal of ‘blue' to its skin color. It is a relatively thin and fast-growing columnar cactus. I have had to cut it back multiple times in the five years I have had this garden.

Cereus hankeanus in my yard

(left) Flowers on Cereus hankeanus. (right) Plant is about 8 feet tall in just two years (not quite 2 feet tall when I acquired it.)

Cereus hildmannianus subsp. uruguayensis is another Brazilian species and one of the most commonly grown columnar cactus in the southwest, also known as Cereus pervuianus, or Queen of the Night. I had one growing in the yard, but it gets large too fast and is not terribly blue most of the time, so I got rid of it. I still have a few of the mini-monstrose versions of it, as they stay relatively small and tend to keep more of the blue coloration.

(left) At the Huntington. (middle and right) Two shots of my mini monstrose plants showing varying degrees of blue color

Ferocactus. Few think of Ferocactus as blue cacti, as most species are decidedly green. But Ferocactus glaucescens, as the name suggests, is a blue-green species, made even bluer by the contrast of the yellow-orange spines it spouts. It might be pushing the definition of 'blue' to say this is a blue cactus, but some are glaucous enough to look blue. Either way, it is one of my favorite cacti, so this gives me a chance to talk about it and show off some photos. This is a Mexican species and it does not tend to get enormous like so many of the other Ferocactus do, but eventually forms large, suckering colonies. Unlike some of the other blue cactus in my yard, this one is quite hardy (for southern California at least) and is one of the more carefree plants I own.

(left to right) Ferocactus glaucescens in a botanical garden, my own plant and flowers

(left) Ferocactus glaucescens f. nuda. (right) Normal (spiny) variety

Melocactus. Most Melocacti are green and known primarily for their amazing cephalums (the flowering portion of the cactus that sets on the barrel and forms a large reddish conical structure.) But at least two species, Melocactus azureus (a.k.a Turk's Cap) and Melocactus glaucescens (Waxy-stemmed Turk's Cap) have blue 'skin'. They are some of the most commonly available species, too perhaps because of their color and also because they are among the hardier species. I have several of these in the yard so far none have had any problem with low temperatures in the upper 20s F. Several internet sites list this species as hardy only to USDA Zone 11, but it is apparently hardier than that. These are very slow-growing plants, and mine have not grown appreciably in the years I have had them. Melocactus azureus has finer spines than Melocactus glaucescens, but otherwise I cannot tell them apart. Once the cephalum starts to appear, a Melocactus will stop growing and all further growth is put into the cephalum. I am hoping mine will keep growing for many years before the cephalum begins to form. The cephalum of these species is reportedly somewhat white, but all the ones I have seen have red tops. Like many of my favorite blue cacti, these are Brazilian species.

My Melocactus glaucescens

(left) Melocactus azureus in a show. (middle) In the ground in California. (right) My own in a stone pot next to Ferocactus glaucescens f. nuda.

Micranthocereus.One species stands out in this genus, and it just happens to be the species I have in the yard: Micranthocereus estevesii (now the accepted name is Siccobaccatus insigniflorus.) If the blue Pilosocereus weren't already my favorite cacti, this one would be. It is such an intensely spiny cactus that the blue color is harder to appreciate, but the orange spines against the turquoise background makes for a truly ornamental plant. This, too, sadly is a very tender species and one of mine completely melted during that aforementioned freeze, while the other is still attempting to recover two years later.

(left) My Micranthocereus estevesii. (middle) In a show. (right) Another shot of my plant.

Plant before and after freeze

Opuntia. This genus includes hundreds of species from all over the Americas. Most are green, but a few have a wonderful blue color. These are among the hardier cacti in existence, so there are no plants in this group I have to worry about their freezing to death. That does not mean I can't kill them, however too little sun and they will rot.

Opuntia gosseliniana is a great-looking plant for the desert landscape, with deep turquoise pads and some shocking shades of purple and pink as well. This and the closely related Opuntia santa-rita (which some think is just a variety of Opuntia gosseliniana) are among the bluest of all the cacti. This is a fast-growing species, relative to most of the other blue ones mentioned so far and a really bad plant to brush up against (itty bitty spines get in your skin and are hard to find.)

(left) Opunita gosseliniana in botanical garden. (middle and right) My own plant showing amazing color of new growth

another bluish Opuntia labeled O. violescens in Huntington

Pilosocereus.This is my favorite of all the blue cacti, primarily due to their availability, (some blue cacti are rare) extreme blue color and ornamental appearance. Some of these are so blue it is hard to believe a plant is really that color. On the other hand, there are plenty of Pilosocereus species that are not blue at all I don't have any of them. For good photos and examples of each species, go to the columnar cactus web site. Pilosocereus is a genus that can be found in many South American countries, Mexico, the Caribbean and even Florida, but most of the really blue species seem to be from Brazil.

(left) Possibly Pilosocereus lanuginosus. (middle) Pilosocereus diersianus in a botanical garden. (right) Pilosocereus flexibilispinus

(left) Pilosocereus lanuginosus (tentative ID), in its first year. (right) Same plant two years later

(left) Unknown species with particularly turquoise coloration. (right) In another area of my garden group of three are Pilosocereus pachycladus others are unknown species.

Pilosocereus tend to be among the most tender of all the cacti I grow in the garden. All were badly damaged or killed last winter when it got down to 26F in the yard (it may have gotten a few degrees colder in spots.) Those that weren't killed had damage to the tips, but all have since grown new columns from just below the ugly scars. I have since learned that many growers place a wad of newspaper and a Styrofoam cup on the tops of their tender cacti when cold weather is coming I will try that next time.

Pilosocereus pachycladus showing fresh cold damage, and older cold damage, with new growths showing up below damaged portion

So if you like the color blue and have the climate for cacti, these plants might make an interesting contribution to your landscaping or potted plant collection. Just be careful if it gets cold where you are (below freezing) and take measures to protect your plants freeze damage never completely goes away.

Garden Worthy Species


The largest genus of cold-hardy cacti is Echinocereus, commonly known as 'Hedgehog Cactus'. Important ornamental species in the genus include E. triglochidiatus, E. viridiflorus, E. reichenbachii, and E. fendleri. However, there are many other species in the genus that have cold-hardy members as well.

This is one of my favorite genera because of the vast numbers of subspecies and variants that can be found. In fact, there are many collectors who concentrate solely on this huge group.

At High Country Gardens, you can find:

Rainbow Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus rigidissimus) is a stunning Southwestern native barrel cactus renowned for its huge magenta and yellow, early summer flowers and the tight growing pink and white spines. It demands fast draining sandy or rocky soil and a hot, sunny spot in the garden. For gardeners that live in moister areas outside of the Southwestern US, it's better grown as a container plant, planted in glazed, hard-fired pots. Good companion plants include Fame Flowers (Phemeranthus), other cold hardy cacti, and smaller growing Penstemon.

The orange flowered species Echinocereus triglochidiatus (USDA zones 5-10) includes a huge number of subspecies and geographic variants. They range in form from huge 3 foot wide clumps with hundreds of spiny stems to small, nearly spineless types found in the mountains of central New Mexico and the plateaus of western Colorado. Echinoereus triglochidiatus 'White Sands' (USDA zones 5-9) is a similar cactus with red flowers. 'White Sands' has become a favorite of High Country Gardens customers.

Echinocereus reichenbachii v. albispinus

Another of the hedgehogs that is an accommodating garden dweller is Echinocereus reichenbachii (USDA zones 5-10). The showiest forms are clump forming and are found in the rocky hills of south central and western Oklahoma. The tight, attractive, comb-like spines are among the most gardener friendly of the cactus family and vary in color from pure white to pinkish-brown. The masses of pink to magenta flowers are extremely showy. Echinocereus reichenbachii is a fast grower (for a cactus) and blooms at an early age. It is also a ready re-seeder if it likes its spot in the garden.

Echinocereus viridiflorus (Green flowered Hedgehog) is another wide-ranging species native to the short grass prairies and foothills of northeastern New Mexico north through Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and into Wyoming. The yellow-green to green flowers are unique and sometimes lightly fragrant. The spines of plants for selected localities can have very colorful bright red and white spines that contrast beautifully with the green flowers. This species is very cold hardy (USDA zones 4-9), easy to grow, and it is a good choice for higher rainfall areas. Echinocereus fendleri (Fendler’s Hedgehog) is another favorite of mine with its enormous magenta flowers in late spring. The spination of this plant can be quite showy as well. Fendler’s Hedgehog is extremely heat tolerant, but it demands excellent drainage and should be protected from excessive winter moisture.


Two other large genera that are very closely related taxonomically are Escobaria and Coryphantha. Here we find another fascinating array of species.

Escobaria vivipara (USDA zones 4-9) is the widest ranging of all the species. This clustering species is long blooming and adapts readily to cultivation. It is a good starter species if one doesn’t have much experience gardening with cacti.

Because of this species' wide range, we also have a huge number of interesting subspecies to add to our gardening pallet. Some of my favorites include the magenta flower species E. vivipara v. rosea from the mountains of Nevada with its huge purple flower and the small stemmed E. vivipara v. bisbeeana from southeastern AZ with its tight white spines and pale pink flowers.

Another extremely cold-hardy species, Escobaria missouriensis (USDA zones 4-9) originates from the western Great Plains. This species is typically clustering with a profusion of greenish-yellow flowers in late spring. It too is readily adaptable to garden culture and mixes well with other non-succulent prairie wildflowers.


Of the genus Coryphantha, one of my favorites would have to be the little known species from West Texas, Coryphantha echinus (USDA zones 6-10). It is proving to be a durable and reliably cold hardy gem. The white, very symmetrical spination makes a fine backdrop to the glowing yellow and orange centered flowers. C. echinus blooms for a long period in the heat of early summer.

At High Country Gardens, we currently carry Coryphantha sulcata (Pineapple Cactus), a long blooming native of Texas. Coryphantha sulcata grows to form small mounds of rounded stems covered in tight white spines. The plant blooms all summer with showy yellow flowers. Our form is exceptionally cold hardy for the species and likely originates from a northern Texas population.

Echinocactus texensis

Another fascinating species sharing a similar range as Coryphantha echinus is Echinocactus texensis (USDA zones 5-9), commonly known in Texas as Horse Crippler. Unfortunately because of its stout spines, it can puncture a hoof, so ranchers relentlessly rouge this species from pasture land so their livestock won’t step on them. However, as a garden specimen this barrel type species is much more valued. It can grow to a foot or more in diameter. The thick claw-like spines are very ornamental as are the large burnt orange flowers that ring the top of the flat stem. Later in the summer the large showy orange fruit crown the plant.

Ferocactus hamatacanthus

Ferocactus hamatacanthus (USDA zones 6-10) is the most cold hardy of the Ferocactus genus best known for its whopper sized specimens found in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. Ferocactus hamatacanthus, however, is from West Texas and is considerably smaller, growing to 15 inches in height and a foot or more in diameter. It has long (often 3 to 4 inches) hooked pink or straw yellow spines and large showy yellow flowers.


The Pediocactus are a small genus of cacti with Pediocactus simpsonii (USDA zones 4-7) and its subspecies Pediocactus simpsonii v. minor being the most widespread. It is a sub-alpine species most often found in the higher altitudes of the many mountain ranges in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and southern Idaho. As one might expect Pediocactus simpsonii is happiest in gardens located above 5,000 ft. in elevation. This species which varies in size from tiny single plants to large clusters of tall stems, doesn’t mind partial shade, especially at lower altitudes. Be aware that it detests humid heat. However, when happily situated in the garden the pink, white, and sometimes yellow flowers are a welcome sight in early spring. (Note that the flower color is variable for this species through its range.) Pediocactus simpsonii often blooms while there is still snow on the ground.


Though the genus Opuntia includes some very difficult to handle species, I do recommend using Opuntia basilaris (USDA zones 5-10) or Beavertail cactus from the Mohave desert. The naked pads are ornamental in their own right, but the double flowered pink or yellow flowers are breathtaking. Place it where it will receive baking heat for best growth and flowering. Give this species some room to spread, as it can grow to cover a 2’ by 2’ wide area. Don’t hesitate to prune it back should it start to overgrow the smaller plants around it.

Reprinted from the March/April issue of The American Gardener with permission of the American Horticulture Society. 7931 E Blvd Dr., Alexandria, VA 22308 or on the web at

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Right now I've been feeding it cactus food and have it repotted in mircle grow cactus palm and cictris mix a claypot as it drains better

I had a Golden Barrel (Echinocactus grusonii) planted in my garden in California that, in 30 years, grew to the size of a basketball. I saw Golden Barrels in Hawaii at Kapiolani College that had been planted 30 years ago and were 3 feet across.

My honest opinion is that you do not have optimal growing conditions for a Golden Barrel or even really good conditions. It could be the size it is for a lot of years.

Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and proclaiming. "WOW What a Ride!!" -Mark Frost

President: Orchid Society of Northern Nevada

I got a high output blue and red grow light I got off Amazon. Coming tomorrow so it's indoor lighting shoukd upgrade I'm not sure the name of the light but I will post it on here

It's from erligpowhrdirect on amazon

It is such a pretty cacti though, always love seeing them in their preferred habitat, dry, warm and low humidity.

Winter is typically very slow time growing for most cacti, they resume more active growth when the warm and dry conditions return. But active growth does not mean fast growth for this cacti. It still grows very slow.

I saw them before at the Getty museum gardens in Los Angeles, really pretty, this was last 30Dec2011..very, very dry and warm at that time: