cactus fruit

The Old Man and the Totem Pole

This is the tale of two cacti, the Senita (also known as the Old Man Cactus) and the Totem Pole cactus. You see both around town. They are intimately related and share the same scientific name, but look very different from each other.

The Senita looks very similar to the Organ Pipe cactus, but the senita has a dense cluster of spines near the top of mature branches. See photos below for comparison, Senita on left.













The spines on the senita look like whiskers, hence the name “Old Man.” Only the mature branches have the spine cluster. The senita is far more frost tolerant than the organ pipe, allowing it to survive farther north and to higher elevations. Senitas can grow to 13 feet tall. Pink, nocturnal flowers about an inch in diameter emerge through the bristles from April through August. The flowers have an unpleasant odor. They are followed by marble-sized red fruits with juicy red pulp. Native people ground the seeds of the fruit into a nutritious mush, and the pulp was boiled down to syrup.


senita-fruit-dimmittSenitas are pollinated by a moth that lives among the spines. The moth larvae survive by eating the developing fruit. This example of mutualism is similar to that of certain yuccas and their pollinating moths.

Senitas are long-lived cacti. According to an ASDM report: “When sites in Baja California photographed in 1905 were revisited in the 1990s, nearly every senita was still present.” The natural range is from extreme southern Arizona, to Sonora, and Baja California.

totempole-2The totem pole is a spineless, bumpy cactus that developed as a natural mutation from the senita cactus. It grows naturally only in a small area of Baja California. All the totem pole cacti in a population are a single clone; it rarely flowers and cannot produce fertile seeds. It can reproduce by “pupping” from roots, and you can grow new plants simply by placing a cut branch in soil. They are often used as landscaping plants. Some horticulturists warn not to touch the cactus with bare hands because skin oils will damage the cactus.

Both senitas and totem pole cactus share the genus and species name Lophocoreus schottii (aka Pachycereus schottii). A subspecies name of monstrosus is added to the totem pole cactus in some classifications.

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