Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruit

The Arizona-Sonoran Desert region has more wild edible plants than anywhere else on the planet according to ethnobotanists. We have cactus fruit, beans from mesquites and palo verde trees, yuccas, agaves, and nut trees, to name just a few edible plants.

Today, I will focus on the barrel cactus. Most cacti bloom in the spring. The barrel cacti bloom and set fruit in the summer. All cactus fruit is edible, none are poisonous, but not all are palatable. The best cactus tasting fruit comes from the saguaro, prickly pear, and barrel cactus.

barrelcactus3-150x150There are six species of barrel cactus in the region. The most common in the Tucson area are Ferocactus wislizeni, the Fishhook barrel, and Ferocactus emoryi, Coville barrel. The Fishhook commonly grows 2- to 4 feet high, but some can reach 10 feet. Coville is generally 1- to 4 feet. The flower color of Coville is bright red; the Fishhook flower is usually orange, but can also be yellow or red.

The spines of the Fishhook are strongly-hooked and surrounded by several radial spines. The main central spine of the Coville is usually red, flattened and hooked. The few radial spines are relatively wide.

The fruit starts out green, but gradually ripens to yellow. Together with the withered flower, the fruit looks like a miniature pineapple. Because the fruit is relatively dry, it does not rot away like the fruits of saguaros and prickly pears. It is common to have the fruit remain on the plant for a year – until something picks it off.

I especially like barrel cactus fruit because it is the only one without spines; it can be picked and eaten raw right off the plant; both the flesh and the seeds inside can be eaten raw or cooked. The flesh is slightly mucilaginous (slimy like okra). The taste is tart; somewhere between lemon and kiwi fruit. The seeds may be separated and ground to a mush. If you pick a fruit that has been on the cactus for sometime, check for insects unless you don’t mind the extra protein. The flower buds can be eaten also. The buds were often boiled and used like cabbage by native tribes.

barrelcactus4-150x150Cactus fruit in general is rich in vitamin A and vitamin C. There is clinical evidence that the juice of the fruit of prickly pears lowers blood cholesterol. This may be a characteristic of most cactus fruit, but only prickly pears have been tested so far. If you have a barrel cactus in the yard, and the fruit is yellow, try taking a bite, they are good.

You may notice that barrel cacti frequently lean in one direction – toward the south. This is a reliable indicator of direction in the desert. They lean south so the top can get the most sunlight.

It is reported that Seri Indians sometimes used the Fishhook barrel for emergency water. However, drinking the juice on an empty stomach often causes diarrhea, and some Seri report pain in their bones if they walk a long distance after drinking the juice. The Seri called the Coville, “barrel that kills” because eating the flesh of the cactus (not the fruit) causes nausea, diarrhea, and temporary paralysis, but the pulp can be used as an external analgesic.

Enjoy the fruit of the desert.

Reference: A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

More edible and medicinal plants of the desert (links updated):

Agave, a plant of many uses

Brittlebush and chewing gum

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

Creosote Bush, a Desert Survivor

Desert Tobacco, a pretty but poisonous desert plant

Jojoba oil, good on the outside, bad on the inside

Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert

Limberbush or blood of the dragon

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

Oak trees of the Sonoran Desert Region

Ocotillos and the Boojum

Palo Verde Trees Will Turn the Desert Golden

Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert

Yuccas provide food, fiber, and soap

Check the Edible Desert Plants page for more


  1. Yes; fascinating.  Our family has taken to harvesting Prickly Pear fruit and Mesquite pods, but we were unaware of the use of Barrel Cactus fruit.  Are you aware of anyplace that non-Native Americans can harvest Saguaro fruit?

    1. leftfield, these people might have more information:
      Or Native Seeds:
      I think the Desert Museum has a saguaro harvesting event each year if my memory serves right.
      I also have a Yahoo group  called SD Traditional foods.  We haven’t been very active, but in the past when people have wanted to harvest wild foods,  members have offered their land.  http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/SDTraditionalFoods/
      Here is a cool video on saguaro harvesting.  I would LOVE to get in on one of these. Not sure how to find them or if anyone can join.   TOCA in Sells might do something too.  Anyone have more info?


  2. Wow, thanks!  I didn’t know you could eat those.  How do you rate them compared to saguaro and prickly pear fruit?

  3. My neighbor gave me some deep pink cactus fruits with very smooth skins – no evidence that spines existed.  I haven’t been able to find out what they are. The flesh inside is white with lots of tiny black seeds and is very mucilaginous. It is rather bland tasting. I’m thinking of making it into a flan.  Any idea what it is?  Thanks.

    1. I have this same pink cactus fruit with no spines- but can’t seem to figure out what kind of cactus it is.
      It tastes like a mildly sweet mix between a banana and a guava. The flowers that  bloom are white and gorgeous but only do so in early foggy mornings,
      Can anyone help with identifying this plant?
      Thank you!

  4. I have often made jelly or preserves from prickly pear cactus fruits (tunas) and everyone loves it, though it takes a good deal of work.  I’m delighted to know that the yellow barrel cactus fruits are also edible.   I’ve mostly seen these used as landscape plants near commercial enterprises here in El Paso, Tx.   If prickly pear cactus jelly is “gourmet”, surely barrel cactus jelly would be as rare as truffles.

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