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10 July 2014

Bones' Apothecary: Barrel Cactus

First, you should know that "barrel cactus" isn't a single species of plant. It's a common name that includes two genera of cacti: ferocactus  and echinocactus.
Second, they're somewhat cute, in a ugly-sneaky-menacing way. Not dissimilar to small, ferocious, ineffective, squishy-faced dogs. You know the ones I'm talking about.

From here.
An example of a echinocactus. From here.

And a ferocactus. From here.

I know you see what I mean. 

So anyway, these guys all have some basic shared traits that make them easy to identify as barrel cacti. For example, they are cacti with a roughly barrel-like shape. Also, they are ribbed, spiny, and they produce flowers and fruit. They can branch, but often they're just a single column sticking almost-straight up, not unlike a giant penis of death.

From here.

This one is starting to bud.
I love how ridiculous they look with their flower heads.
From here.

They do tend to lean a bit to the southwest, as they grow toward the sun. This can be a problem as they get taller. See all that ribbing they have? During the rainy season, they fill up with water and the ribs flatten out a bit. Gives them plenty of room to store water for the dry season (which is most of the year, in the Sonoran Desert). It also makes them top-heavy when they're full of water. Being top-heavy and leaning a bit means that these cacti don't usually get very tall - after a certain height, they fall over. Then they die.

Like this. See how it's starting to turn gray, and the ribs are deep?
It's dying, and it isn't storing water anymore.
From here.

Wikipedia says barrel cacti are dangerous to people. I disagree; barrel cacti don't move around much (not like those damned jumping chollas - more on those in a later post), and they're not very sneaky (once they're past a certain size they're pretty obvious, and below that size... well, don't walk barefoot in the desert and you'll be fine). The problem, according to the wiki page, is that "a puncture to human skin from one of the spines is considered a 'dirty wound'. If the puncture is deep enough to draw blood, antibiotics may be needed; and could take up to several months for the wound to heal properly."

That's quite a stretch from the reference the wiki author cites for that "information." The cited reference, the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum website (which is a great resource), does say, "with all deep puncture wounds tetanus infection is a remote but real possibility." This is not at all the same as calling cactus spine punctures "dirty wounds" that could take "several months" to heal. Cactus spines are, in and of themselves, neither poisonous nor venomous, mkay? In my personal experience, brushing up against a cactus spine accidentally gives you the cactus-equivalent of a splinter. Obnoxious, yes. Deep puncture wound, no. Now, if you somehow manage to jam one of those babies into your flesh a few inches, yeah, that could cause problems. But the problems wouldn't be because the thing in your flesh is a cactus spine; you would have problems because there's a thing in your flesh. If you had a monster splinter in your flesh, you might have to consider a tetanus booster, too, no matter how benign the tree was before you splintered it.

Moving on to other myths...

No, you should not drink water from the inside of a barrel cactus if you're thirsty and want to play cowboy. It is not a "traveler's friend," despite that unfortunate nickname. The water inside a barrel cactus is highly alkaline, and causes diarrhea and headaches - more or less of each depending on the species. For example, fishhook barrel cactus (ferocactus wislizenii) juice is more likely to cause diarrhea and joint pain, while Coville barrel cactus (ferocactus covillei) juice causes headaches. If you're really afraid you might die of thirst, you still shouldn't do it. Diarrhea will further dehydrate you, and you will die. Instead, try the prickly pear cactus for liquid sustenance; it's far more friendly to our digestive tracts and neural sensitivities, and if you're seeing barrel cacti, there'll probably be some prickly pears nearby. Like this:

That odd looking cactus in the top of the picture is a prickly pear.
The little red fruits are actually quite tasty when cooked.
Prickly pear jelly is The Awesome.
Anyway, back to barrel cacti...
From here.

That is not to say that no part of the barrel cactus can comfortably be consumed; the buds and flowers can be cooked (parboiled; this reduces their natural bitterness) and eaten, or sun-dried for later consumption. The buds or flowers are available for harvest for a few months each year, typically starting in late spring or early summer. The easiest way to harvest the buds or flowers is with a stick or two - you can pluck those little suckers right off there with a couple sticks. The seeds can be ground up like flour and mixed with water if gruel's your thing. Not sure how that would taste, but it's edible.

If you really wanna get gutsy - and careful - you can cut that cactus open and use it for a container. Their structural integrity is quite good. You'll just have to dig out the interior.

There aren't a lot of medicinal uses for a barrel cactus, but there's a possibility it could help with pain. Remove the spines, roast a slice of the body, wrap the slice in a cloth, then press it to a sore area. Again, do not consume the body of a barrel cactus. It will hurt you.

I've found zero references to barrel cacti in a spiritual context, so I'll just share a bit about what I think of them. Your mileage may very.
This is a plant whose most common cause of death is it's own weight, as it stores more water than it can hold at its angle. It's almost a perfect metaphor for hoarding. It could be a reminder that we can't hold on to everything; we can't save All The Things. Or maybe the barrel cactus could be seen as a reminder to let go of things that are weighing you down and keeping you from growing. That which you think is saving you (storing all that water for the dry season) might just be what kills you. As the Buddhists say: let it go.

References are linked as they are used, except this one because it's a real book:
"Indian Uses of Desert Plants" by James W. Cornett, published in 2011 by Nature Trails Press.

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