How to tell the difference between Saguaro and Arizona barrel cactus

For many people, the mere mention of Arizona conjures up images of the iconic Saguaro cactus with it’s tall slender lines and branches that look like arms. But there’s another cactus species that is often mistaken for an immature Saguaro that hasn’t grown its arms yet. The look alike is Arizona Barrel cactus; also known as a fishhook barrel cactus.

Saguaro and barrel cactus plants in a desert landscape
In this picture you can see a few Saguaro cactuses (the taller ones with arms on the right half) and an Arizona Barrel cactus (shorter one slightly left of center, with no arms).

While the two cacti may look the same to the casual observer, knowing what to look for can help you see the difference between the two. Some of the features to compare are height, flower color, shape of spines and whether or not it has branches or arms.

Features that help distinguish Saguaro from Barrel cactus:

Max height40 feet (12 m)10 feet (3 m)
Flower colorWhiteYellow
Shape of spinesStraightCurved
The large Saguaro shown in this picture is often what comes to mind when people hear the words Arizona and cactus in the same sentence.
Close up of saguaro cactus spine
A close up view of the Saguaro cactus reveals spines are mostly straight and black or grey in color.
This Arizona Barrel cactus could easily be mistaken for a young Saguaro.
Close up of Arizona Barrel cactus spines
If you look closely at a barrel cactus you’ll see that the spines are somewhat curved and possess a red or pink hue.

Saguaro and barrel cactus factoids:

  • The Saquaro flower is Arizona’s state flower and Saguaros are protected from destruction by state law; barrel cactuses are not protected.
  • A Saguaro cactus is usually about 70 years old before it begins to grow branches (arms).
  • The scientific name for Saguaro is Carnegiea gigantea. The species (first name) honors businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for his significant donations to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
  • At least 15 species of barrel cactus grow in the Sonoran Desert. Many are relatively short and some are nearly perfectly round like a basketball.
This low-growing species of barrel cactus is widely used in compact sections of Arizona home landscapes.

Although the Saguaro cactus is an iconic symbol of Arizona, people often mistake the Arizona Barrel cactus for a Saguaro that hasn’t grown its arms yet. Knowing the difference between Saguaro and Arizona Barrel cactus won’t mean the difference between life and death, but it may help you better appreciate the diverse plant life found in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.