Desert Survival
Water from a barrel cactus?


Desert survival books often mention getting water from a barrel cactus. I've never had the opportunity to try this: it is my understanding that the process of getting water (by cutting off the top of the cactus and squeeze the liquid from the pulp) stresses or kills the plant and that the barrel cactus is a protected species.

But on a recent hike in Arizona I came across a barrel cactus which had been knocked over and broken into. How and when, I do not know. This seemed like a good opportunity to try the process.

The damaged cactus with pulp exposed.
Photo with my swiss army knife to help the viewer get a better idea of the size of the cactus.
I used my cup to scoop some pulp out of the cactus and into my bandana. It immediately began dripping: clearly a lot of moisture.
I squeezed the pulp in my bandana, letting the liquid run into my cup. From one scoop of pulp I got about half a cup of liquid. This with virtually no effort.
But how does it taste? Well, I may never know. As I said before, I don't know how or when this cactus was knocked over and broken into. By the look of the outside, I would think it was quite some time ago. The pulp was very stinky. Fermented perhaps? I don't know, but I wasn't going to risk getting sick. Even now, as I write this in my hotel room, after a shower and washing my hands several times, I can still smell it.

Back from my hike, I checked some other sources on the internet. While some continue to perpetuate the myth that this is a reliable source of liquid refreshment, others insist that this is not the case. Quoting the late David Alloway, a highly regarded expert in desert survival, "What about cacti and water? Different species of barrel cacti (mostly in the genera Ferocactus and Echinocactus) are often touted as virtual reservoirs of potable water. Some cacti do contain large amounts of potable water, while others have some harsh chemicals along with it. Some cacti can cause vomiting or diarrhea, both of which are disastrous to someone already dehydrated. Even if the cactus is not especially toxic, your body may not be familiar with its chemistry, which can also bring about vomiting and/or diarrhea in an effort to purge the system. I usually encourage people to try different plants before an emergency, but not so in the case of the barrel cactus. A mature plant may be over two hundred years old, and cutting the top off and mashing the pulp kills it only for the sake of experimentation. I have read that replacing the cap on the cactus will help it heal and survive. The whole point of this article, however, is not to believe everything you read. In dire straits it may be called for to try to extract water from barrel cacti, but be aware of the possible consequences." (Source: http://www.death-valley.us/article245.html)

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Copyright © 2004 by Bill Qualls. Last updated August 20, 2004.