Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus Grusonii)
We know the famous polka song says it’s fun to “roll out the barrel”, but we’d say that depends on the barrel. For instance, trying to roll the beautiful-but-prickly Golden Barrel Cactus, Echinocactus Grusonii is definitely not fun—at least, not without a suit of armor. We recommend you skip the rolling and just let this captivating botanical “barrel” wow you with its humble needs and surprisingly stylish and dramatic good looks.
Native to the volcanic-rock slopes of east-central Mexico (where it is actually endangered), Golden Barrel Cactus is a near-perfect sphere or (if it’s old enough) cylinder of bright green, up to 2’-3’ tall and wide. The young plants start out at knobby globes with clusters of stiff, very sharp golden-yellow quills growing out of the tips of each knob. As the plant matures, the knobs become vertical ridges, still lined with clusters of quills, and a wispy white “wool” appears at the top of the plant.
Once the barrel reaches 14 inches or so in width, it may even unleash a beautiful halo of delicate golden yellow flowers (and later harvest-able seeds). It also produces plenty of offsets, so it’s not uncommon for one plant to become a small mound of multiple sphere-shaped cacti.
Whether in the home or the landscape, Golden Barrel Cactus has a bold, almost majestic appearance thanks to its uncommon-but-elegant shape and thorns so dense they look almost like fur. (Incidentally, the thorns are also semi-translucent and almost “glow” in early morning/late afternoon sunlight.) It’s fantastic as an accent plant, especially in groups, and shines as a specimen plant as well.
Plus, as a cactus, Echinocactus Grusonii needs almost zero care. Give it plenty of sun, a sip of water now and then, don’t leave it outside when average temps drop below 45°F … and that’s honestly about all there is to it. You’ll want to keep Golden Barrel Cactus a fair distance away from high-traffic areas—those thorns are no joke—but the point is, you’ll want it, period.
Characteristics and traits of a Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus Grusonii)
Scientific Name: Echinocactus Grusonii (syn: Kroenleinia Grusonii)
Common Name: Golden Barrel Cactus, Golden Ball Cactus, Mother-in-Law’s Cushion, Mother-in-Law’s Pillow, Hedgehog Cactus, Urchin Cactus
Indoor: All year in temperatures above 50°F
Outdoor Zones: 9-11
Type: Perennial evergreen cactus; propagated via division of offshoots
Mature Height: 24”-36”
Mature Width: 24”-36”
Plant Height when Shipped: XXXXXX
Growth Rate: Slow to medium
Flower: Yes - pale yellow, bell-shaped blooms in a ring on top of older (20+ years) specimens.
Foliage: Globular-to-barrel-shaped fleshy stem of medium green, vertical ribs lined with clusters of thick, sharp yellow spines
Plant Care and Advice for Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus Grusonii)
Grown In: Inside: all zones year round, Outside: zones 9-11
Light Requirements: Full sun (but may need afternoon protection in summer in desert-like locations) to bright indirect.
Water Requirements: March-August: Water deeply, drain, and withhold until top 2”-3” are dry again. September through February, give little or no water.
Drought Tolerance: Fantastic
Temperature: Prefers 55°F-90°F indoors, but can take more heat when planted in the ground outdoors. Bring in when outdoor temps fall below 40°F.
Air Purification: Good
Toxicity: Non-toxic, but mind the thorns
Fertilizer: Cactus/succulent fertilizer (2-7-7) every 6 weeks in spring/summer (half-strength if plant was recently repotted)
Container Friendly: Yes - but drainage is vital
Considering that Golden Barrel Cactus is covered in thorns and doesn't much care for being repotted anyway, it’s okay to wait to repot until you see the plant’s roots poking out of the pot’s drainage holes or rising above the soil’s surface.
When it’s time to repot, choose a medium-to-shallow pot and prepare a quick-draining potting mix. Standard cactus mix will do, as will custom-blending standard potting soil 50/50 with sand or perlite.
Obviously, a plant covered in spikes requires a bit more care than usual when handling. Wear thick gloves, support the plant from below (fewer spines) when possible, and hold a crushed or folded newspaper in your other hand to use as a pad, so the spines aren’t touching your gloved hands directly. If you’re moving a cactus planted in the ground, dig all around it and then lift it from below with a shovel while pulling it toward you with a garden hose looped around its backside.
Note: Because cactus hold so much water, they’re often deceptively heavy. A 24” Golden Barrel Cactus can weigh 100 pounds or more.
When placing the cactus in its new pot or location, be gentle with the fragile roots. Tamp down around the plant to prevent any hollow gaps in the soil. But wait 2 weeks before watering so the roots have time to heal and acclimate. If you’re transplanting your cactus in the ground rather than a pot, be sure to plant it on a slight slope or mound, just steep enough that water will not pool around it, but not so steep that the cactus will topple over.
Finally, Golden Barrel cacti lean toward the light. When placing your plant in its new location, try to rotate the plant so it faces the sun in the same way. Otherwise, it may get a sunburn.
In most locations, Golden Barrel Cactus will want all the sun it can get. In fact, the more sun it gets, the more golden its spines will become. However, if you give it full sun, you’ll still want to keep an eye on it, especially in the desert southwest. Younger plants in particular may need a bit of protection to avoid getting burnt in the hot afternoon sun.
When moving the plant to an area with stronger light, do so over the course of 7-14 days, giving it a little more sun each day or two, so it can ease into its new environment.
Water-wise, Golden Barrel Cactus loves the “drench and drain” strategy during spring and summer. Give the plant a good, long drink of lukewarm water until it flows from the bottom of the pot. Then let it drain completely and wait for the soil to dry to a depth of 2”-3” before watering again. Come fall and winter, water very sparingly or even not at all.
Golden Barrel Cactus is happiest at temperatures between 55°F-90°F, though it can withstand quick cold snaps as low as 15°F. It’s also not wild about sudden temperature changes, so avoid placing it in the path of heat vents, fans, A/C units, and so on.
As a true cactus, Echinocactus Grusonii is quite happy at normal room humidity. It doesn’t require a ton of fertilizer but will generally respond well to a dose of cactus/succulent fertilizer (typically 2-7-7) every 6 weeks or so from April to August. If the plant was recently repotted, dilute the fertilizer to half-strength.
As with most cacti, the biggest threat to Echinocactus Grusonii is too much care, specifically overwatering and excessive fertilizing.
If your Echinocactus Grusonii starts to become wrinkled or shrunken, especially near its base, it needs water. Give it a deep drink, maybe even let it soak for 30-45 minutes in 3-4 inches of tepid water. Then let it drain.
Rusty, corky areas on the skin are a sign of overwatering. Worse, moldy-smelling soil and/or soft patches of flesh are a sign of root rot. To save the cactus, remove it from the soil, prune any mushy or rotten flesh or roots, leave the plant overnight to dry out, then repot it in fresh, dry soil. Finally, adjust your care practices to give the plant less water in the future.
Greyish, “scab-like” areas are a part of the cactus’ natural aging process. They’re harmless, but not terribly attractive. They can be minimized with proper care (no cold breezes, adequate light, no overwatering).
Brown flesh is likely a symptom of stem rot (treat the same as root rot) or mealybugs,
Echinocactus Grusonii has very few pest problems. Mealybugs are easily treated with insecticidal soap. Aphids can be sprayed with a 1:1 mix of water and isopropyl, then rinsed with water and insecticidal soap. For spider mites, spray the cactus with water, then encase it in an airtight plastic bag and keep warm and bright for 4 days. The added humidity should kill the spider mites with no further treatment required. However, if that treatment is logistically difficult, insecticidal soap often works well too.
If your Echinocactus Grusonii is old enough to bloom, the resulting seeds (which you can also purchase online) are an excellent way to propagate new cacti. Just collect the seeds and spread them on moist soil—do not cover them, though—and lay clear plastic over them, then place the container somewhere bright and at least 77°F. Remove the plastic for just a few minutes each day, keep the soil moist, and the seeds should germinate within a week.
Echinocactus Grusonii can also be propagated by detaching any pups or offsets from the plant, particularly during repotting.
For offsets still attached to the parent, simply grab them (we recommend rubber-tipped tongs) and twist to detach. For pups with their own stems, just cut their stem. Let the baby plants sit a few days so their wound can seal and harden, then set them in sandy soil, place them in a warm spot with bright indirect light, and keep the soil lightly moist. Once they’ve rooted, they can be moved and treated as normal.