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The Fish Hook Barrel Cactus is a True Sonoran Desert Beauty

The fish hook barrel cactus can bring a distinctive accent to Arizona gardens.

In a region where golden barrel cacti can be as ubiquitous as triple-digit temperatures, the fish hook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni) can bring a unique note to Arizona gardens.

“This plant doesn’t blast away your garden composition with bright color,” observes landscape designer Bennett McGregor, who is partial to the cacti’s deep green skin studded with vibrant red barbs. “It provides a strong but subtle accent. When it rains, there’s an extra bit of fun as the spines turn bright red. They really pop.”

Also known as the Arizona barrel cactus, candy barrel cactus and Southwestern barrel cactus, this species is native to the Sonoran Desert and sometimes mistaken for saguaro because of their spherical shape and color similarity. Very slow growing and virtually indestructible, the single-unit cacti bloom in early summer, attracting bees and hummingbirds, followed by the appearance of small fruits that are a favorite snack of smaller wildlife.

Photography by Kevin Kaminski

McGregor praises the plant as an authentic addition to desert Valley gardens. “Fish hook barrels have a good visual weight and are a nice nod to the native desert,” he says, noting that he likes to group the younger, spherical plants and relocate them, as they eventually lean toward the Southwestern sun and achieve verticality. “There is a ruggedness to them. When you look through the spines from a distance you will see a translucent glow, almost like a halo. In a landscape full of leaves and organic shapes, this is a more design-based organic form, a sculptural piece that you can use to contrast and play off of softer shapes.”

The blooms of the fish hook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni) range from bright yellow to vivid orange to deep red.


  • TYPE: Cacti
  • SIZE: Up to 8’H by 20″ in diameter
  • BLOOMS: Yellow or orange blossoms in a ring at the plant’s top; May-June
  • WATER NEEDS: Minimal
  • ATTRACTS: Bees, hummingbirds; fruit attracts small wildlife
  • SOIL: Rocky, well-drained
  • LIGHT: Full to partial sun
  • MAINTENANCE: Remove spent blooms if desired.
Similar in form to the golden barrel, the fish hook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni) features bent spines that turn deep red after a rainfall. Photography by Melissa Valladares.

Landscape architect: Bennett McGregor, Bennett McGregor Landscapes Inc., Phoenix,


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