Often confused as a member of the Ferocactus group of cacti, the Golden Barrel cactus is one of the most popular landscape plants for arid and desert regions. It displays a characteristic spiky golden globose shape that when installed en masse in a landscape, creates a whimsical appearance of giant sea urchins outside the ocean.
If this design or just the thought of a striking potted golden globe of a plant appeals to you, the Golden Barrel cactus is exactly the one to consider.
What is a Golden Barrel Cactus?
Scientifically known as Echinocactus grusonii or Kroenleinia grusonii, the Golden Barrel cactus was named after the stout cylinder-like shape of the green fleshy stem that is covered in 1-2in long yellow to golden sharp spines. They appear along the 21-37 symmetrical ribs of the plant which become more pronounced as the plant gets old. It is otherwise called Mother-in-law’s Cushion and Golden Ball which are also attributed to the appearance of the plant (1).
From a rounded appearance, the plant elongates at maturity and grows up to 1m in height and 1m in width. E. grusonii can take up to 20-35 years to reach this size and not all plants, especially the cultivated ones, can peak. In summer, flowers borne are yellow trumpet-like forming around the top of the stem like a dainty crown. They eventually turn into brown pods filled with minuscule black seeds (2).
This Echinocactus is endemic to Mexico and upon its discovery in the late 1880s, it has been distributed to different areas of North America, Europe, and other parts of the world. Because of its popularity as an ornamental plant, the Golden Barrel cactus was over-collected from the wild and has also lost its habitat. Up until today, it is considered a critically endangered flora species (3).
Efforts have been made to conserve this Echinocactus and now, only cultivated and propagated plants are available for ornamental use. Several laws in different states in the US and other places are implemented in the pursuit to protect the species (4).
The Golden Ball, like most cacti, is ornamentally collected mainly because of its remarkable appearance and the ease of growing that comes with it. The plant needs a full sun exposure, almost like what it receives in its natural habitat to promote flowering and a vibrant appearance. It can grow indoors placed on a sunny windowsill where it can receive good ventilation too (1).
Watering this cactus is low-maintenance as a natural drought plant, it can tolerate a regular once a month schedule, or less during winter, as long as the soil is well-draining. This type of soil is usually a mixture of 70% coarse materials like pumice and pebbles and 30% soil or organic materials (2).
Echinocactus Grusonii Growth Rate
This cactus grows very quickly in the beginning but the growth rate will slow down. To grow to a 10-inch (25 cm) diameter, it would take up to 10 years.
Propagation and Care
As long as the growth requirements of the Mother-in-law’s cushion cactus are met, the plant will thrive amazingly in the garden or indoors. Young plants grow quickly but slow down eventually and since the plant takes years to mature, propagation may not be as frequent.
But once past their vegetative stage, the cacti are easy to propagate. The seeds from the fruits are highly viable but take a long time to produce transferrable seedlings. The cactus produces offsets and these are more often used in propagation (5). They are carefully detached from the mother plant and easily potted and allowed to root.
In caring for an Echinocactus, avoid humid indoor locations such as the bathroom and kitchen as this will affect the structure of the succulent stem and leave marks. Do not water directly onto the stem as this may also cause burning or scars. A useful technique in watering plants with delicate fleshy stems and leaves is by leaving the bottom of the pot submerged in water, making sure that the moisture is available to the root system.
Avoid using soil mixes that retain too much water as rotting of the roots and stem can occur. Although the plant is a slow-grower, it will benefit from repotting every 2 to 3 years just to loosen the soil and roots and prevent it from being root-bound. This activity will require the use of appropriate PPE since the spines of the cactus are sharp and can cause an injury (1).
The Golden Barrel cactus is also tolerant of cold but not for prolonged periods. During winter, keep the plant from frost by keeping indoors or away from temperatures below 10°F.
As an indoor plant, the Golden Barrel cactus is best displayed in large decorative pots that will complement the color and form of the plant. In an interiorscape or garden, it will blend well in landscape themes like desert gardens or consistent golden gardens (2).
(1) Maguire, K. The Kew Gardener’s Guide to Growing House Plants. White Lion Publishing. 2019. P. 144.
(2) Flora and Fauna Web. Kroenleinia grusonii. 2020, https://www.nparks.gov.sg/florafaunaweb/flora/1/9/1981. Accessed March 25, 2021.
(3) The University of Arizona. Golden Barrel. 2012, https://apps.cals.arizona.edu/arboretum/taxon.aspx?id=833. Accessed March 25, 2020.
(4) United States Botanic Garden. Golden Barrel Cactus.2019, https://www.usbg.gov/plants/golden-barrel-cactus. Accessed March 25, 2021.
(5) Bagnasco, J. & Reidmuller, B. Succulents: Choosing, Growing, and Caring for Cactuses and other Succulents. Cool Springs Press. 2019. P. 208.