Golden Barrel Cactus

The golden barrel cactus or Echinocactus grusonii originated in Mexico. Its round, chubby shape which has earned it the alternative name mother-in-law’s cushion, makes it an attractive addition to rock gardens, succulent gardens or Mediterranean gardens. It is perfect for xeriscape gardening in US growing zones 9-11. This means that it will be completely happy in warm, arid zones in Australia and it can even manage in sub-tropical areas.

Saved by Domestication

Echinocactus grusonii is endangered as a wild plant in its native region for two different reasons. First, a dam was constructed in the area where it was most prevalent. The cactus grows naturally on rocky, volcanic mountainsides at around 1400 meters in Hidalgo. The Zimapan Dam produces 292 megawatts of power, and is also a major tourist attraction. Unfortunately, it placed much of the golden barrel cactus’s native habitat under water.

Second, people just cannot seem to resist taking this prickly plant from the wild. If you see one growing in its native habitat, please leave it there. It would be a sad thing for it to finally exist only as a cultivated or domesticated plant. As of 2019, there are less than 11,000 left in the wild and it has been placed on the Red List for endangered species.

The good news is that if you want to grow one of these interesting little plants, they are easily propagated by seed and are available through several seed catalogs. This means that there is no need at all to harvest them from the wild.

Growing Habits

Like many desert plants, the golden barrel cactus enjoys a thorough soaking followed by an extensive time of minimal watering. Like many cacti and similar succulents, it can be damaged by overwatering. It likes a well-drained soil that has nutrients that resemble the volcanic slopes from which it originates. It can be grown out of doors in areas where temperatures are no lower than 50 degrees F (10 degrees C.). Although it has a winter dormancy period, it does not easily survive heavy frosts. Fortunately, it does not seem to mind environmental humidity such as might be found in a normal household.

The golden barrel cactus can be grown in pots, and makes an attractive addition to patios, conservatories and rock gardens. It loves full sun, although young plants might need some shading in mid-day, and it will need to be slowly re-introduced to full sun after wintering indoors. It dislikes being repotted, so try for a pot that is about 2.5 times the size of the root ball for initial potting, and plan to repot about once per year when young, and perhaps every two or three years as the plant matures. It is time to repot when the roots begin to be visible through the drain hole. It does well in a gravel, earth and perlite mixture. The plants should be fed about every four weeks during the summer season, then allowed a time of dormancy.

When the plant matures, and has just the right amount of light and nutrition, it will bloom. From these blooms, it will produce seed which can grow into more chubby little pincushion plants.

More things to Know

Golden Barrel Cactus loves sun, but like many succulents, it can sunburn. Watch your plant closely and if it seems to be developing an unhealthy color, consider how much light it is getting. If it has been placed in a window, you might need to turn it or pull down a shade during hottest part of the day. If it is outdoors, you might need a light sunscreen that will protect it from mid-day sunlight.

Wear Gloves to handle. Remember that this plant’s nickname is mother-in-law’s cushion, implying that it is not something you want to sit on. When in good health, the golden barrel cactus strongly resembles a fat, tomato pincushion that has lots of pins stuck in it.

Those ribs are for storing water.  A golden barrel cactus can have around 32 ribs, each one with a golden stripe and a row of seriously spiky spines. When it is in good health, those spines will hold the plant in its rounded form, slowly releasing stored water as it needs it. Care should be taken not to allow the plant to dry up completely, however. If it becomes too dry it will be difficult to restore it to health.

Echinocactus grusonii grows very quickly at first, which is why it might need repotted often as a young plant. As it grows older, it will grow more slowly.

The golden barrel cactus needs even light to develop its well-known pincushion  shape. If it does not receive enough light, it will develop more of a long, pencil shape, edged with ribs and spines, of course.

A Few Final Words about the Golden Barrel Cactus

This beautiful plant is readily available from garden catalogs, and can be grown from seed harvested from domestic plants. If you have good luck growing aloe vera, you can probably grow golden barrel cactus in a pot or in your back yard if you have a suitable climate. It is endangered in its own habitat, so please purchase your little pincushion echinocactus grusonii from a reputable garden company.


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