This cactus grows in small clumps, usually with eight to ten individual stems up to 2 feet (0.6 m) tall. There may be 50 or 60 stems in a single old plant. The spines are numerous and can vary in color from reddish-brown to gray. Often all three colors are present, hence the name Calico Cactus. Stems are vertically ridged and 2 to 3 inches (5-8 cm) wide.
This cactus can be found in sandy and gravely soils from 1000 to 5000 feet (300-1500 m). Flowers are purple to magenta; fruits are bright strawberry red, providing an alternate name: Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus. The flowering period is April through June.
Calico Cactus should not be confused with the Mojave Mound Cactus, which has red flowers, shorter stems, and usually grows in larger mounds at elevations of 3500 to 6000 feet (1100-1850 m).