The Cotton Top Cactus ‘Echinocactus Polycephalus’

The Cotton Top Cactus 'Echinocactus Polycephalus'

Cottontop and Cactus are two fascinating words to put together. Cotton is soft to touch, while a Cactus is prickly. It is not the softness of the cotton that is the key feature behind the name. It is the fruits that are densely woolly, which are the reference for cottontop.

This is a cactus that is native to Arizona, mainly found in the Mojave Desert. Being a desert plant, it can also be easily found in the Sonora Desert. That touches both California and Mexico. These cactuses are built to take the pressure of the elements, thriving in extremely arid environments.

Some of the other names for this plant include Many-Headed Barrel Cactus, Wooly Headed Barrel Cactus, or even Harem Cactus.

Cottontop Cactus - Echinocactus Polycephalus
Echinocactus Polycephalus @sunbird_cactus

Growth of The Echinocactus Polycephalus

This pretty prickly plant can be found growing close to the ground, standing at approximately 2 feet tall. It can grow as a solitary plant, or in a large cluster of up to 30 plants. It has spines that crisscross over each other, ordinarily red to yellow in color. To view the colors of the spines most clearly, this cactus should be viewed after a short spurt of rain. This is when it stands out in full glory against the dust of the desert. Underneath its spiny exterior, this is a stem succulent. Each stem can grow quite thick, reaching up to 1 foot in diameter. The stems also feature ribs that run from the bottom to the top.

Cottontop Cactus will flower from the late spring into the early summer each year. The flowers bloom from the top of the stems. The flowers are bright yellow in color.

Interested already in getting a cotton head cactus? Be sure to check out “8 Best Indoor Cacti You Need to Have” for more options on the cacti species.

Where most succulents and desert plants can be grown through propagation, you do not want to take that route with this plant. This does not even begin to describe the process. Instead, you can grow this cactus from seed. To do this, you need to plant the seed in a thin layer of sand. The soil should then be misted and covered with a lid. Remember, minimal water works best. Once they germinate and have grown a little, they can then be transplanted and placed in a bigger pot. No matter what size the plant is, always use gloves when handling this cactus.

Thinking of using grow lights to support your cactus? Check out “Are Grow Lights Bad for My Succulents” for more info.

Cottontop Cactus - Echinocactus Polycephalus
Development of Polycephalus Echinocactus @nemo_di_punta_grossa

Keeping an Echinocactus Polycephalus

The Echinocactus Polycephalus is an excellent plant for the beginner gardener, as it requires minimal care. It can be grown in a pot and requires sandy soil and minimal water. For it to thrive, the warmest room in the home is advised, where it can receive plenty of direct sunlight. A little shade during the hottest months can prevent the plant from getting burned or moving it back away from the window.

A key component of keeping this cactus is watering it properly to prevent damage or even death. Being a plant made for arid deserts, these plants need minimal water. In the hot summer months, once a week is adequate. After summer, once every two months is enough. However, in the winter, there is no need to water this plant as it becomes dormant.

Fertilizer is not required for this plant, as it naturally grows in areas where nutrients in the soil are low. If you do feel the need to give it a little boost in nutrients, do so once a year in the summer. Low nitrogen liquid fertilizer is the best option. Using this in spring will help boost it back into growth after the dormant winter.

Take a look at “How Long Do Succulents Live?” for a look at seeing how long your succulents will last you with proper care.


Unless your conditions perfectly mimic, the natural habitat of this plant, it is not recommended for a gardener to grow this plant outdoors. The simple reason is exposure to moisture and rain. Too much water and this plant will die. If you do want to keep them outdoors, they should be grown in terracotta pots. Then, when it rains, they can be easily moved away from the rain to keep their potting mix dry. Want more options for indoor succulents? Check out “9 Flowering Succulents for Indoors” for more options.

This is a plant that is rarely found in landscaping shops. If you are looking for the seeds, they will typically come in packs of ten. Expect around half of the seeds to germinate.


Cottontop Cactus - Echinocactus Polycephalus
Terms of Polycephalus Echinocactus @monycactus

Interesting Facts About the Echinocactus Polycephalus

  1. There are some fantastic facts about this plant, including -The ‘Cotton’ from this plant is gently picked by birds and small animals. Who use it for nesting material.
  2. The best place to grow this cactus is along a rocky slope.
  3. If your seeds do not germinate the first time, do not worry. Dry them out and try again within six. Some are bound to germinate then.
  4. Organic soil is a NO for the Cottontop Cactus. It will grow much better in stones and sand.
  5. When growing this plant indoors, a deep pot is ideal. It has long roots.
Cottontop Cactus - Echinocactus Polycephalus
Cottontop Cactus @gannzob29

Thank you for reading! Let us know in the comments below if you have a cottontop cactus laying around your succulent garden! Be sure to check out more helpful content for your succulents like “Best Gardening Tools for Succulents.

Enjoyed learning about the Cottontop Cactus? If so, you’ll really enjoy our ebook about “Rare Succulents You Wish You Knew About“. With this ebook you’ll find yourself more detailed answers that’ll help your succulent grow even better! With thousands of succulent lovers enjoying our ebooks, you don’t want to miss out on what works the best to grow your succulents.

Happy Planting!

Succulent City chief editor


Succulent City

Hey everyone! Welcome to Succulent City! We are all about succulents, cacti, and a bit about air plants. Ten years back, in 2013, we began the journey with succulents. It started as a simple hobby, crafting and selling charming succulent-themed pins and decorations. But as time passed, our fascination with these remarkable plants grew, and we gained extensive knowledge about them. Therefore, Succulent City is the blog as you see it is now. Enjoy your visit and happly planting!

2 thoughts on “The Cotton Top Cactus ‘Echinocactus Polycephalus’

  1. Hello Richard,
    Do you have any information on the Paiute or Native American usage of the Barrel Cactus as food or medicine? Which parts are edible?
    Thank you~ Charmaine Vierra

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Posted in Cacti