roll out the barrel(s)

I know spiky agaves in the garden make some people nervous, but lovers of architectural plants for the dry garden can get into a lot more trouble than an agave. The golden barrel cactus has recently gotten under my skin, figuratively speaking only, thank goodness. Echinocactus grusonii holds the dubious distinction of being one of the most familiar yet endangered cactus planted around Southern California. Illegal collecting and the building of the Zimapan Dam and reservoir in its native Hidalgo, Mexico, haven’t helped matters. Indeed, Jim Folsom, Director of the Huntington Botanical Garden, believes it is probably no longer to be found in the wild.


Golden barrel cactus at the Ruth Bancroft Garden

Regrettably, I have only one golden barrel cactus to roll out, to test its light-splintering qualities this fall, now that light and wind have replaced heat as the big news in the garden. I plug pots of agaves into the garden all the time as the seasons (or my itchy digging fingers) open up space for their big sculptural rosettes. But this is a first for me, temporarily moving a potted barrel cactus into the garden, and that’s for a couple reasons. In my experience, barrel cactus are rarely used as specimens and are almost always planted in groups. Would just one look silly? And, secondly, Echinocactus grusonii deals with any absent-minded mishandling quickly and savagely, inflicting a “dirty wound,” prone to infection. So why risk it, you say?

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The key word is “golden.” It has a wonderful solidity, but all those golden spines arrayed like hundreds of tiny propellors impart a surprising lightness too. Doesn’t that silver pot make it look like a prickly loaf of rising bread? Placement of cactus in the landscape does bring up valid concerns for pets and children. My little experiment is in a spot safe from wandering corgi paws.

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As far as planting as a specimen versus in groups, I’m still undecided. Here golden barrel cactus is a specimen with fiery red Crassula pubescens ssp. radicans. I am so not ashamed of wanting to steal this idea.


With dyckias and Echeveria agavoides at the Huntington’s Desert Garden.


The same area stepping further back, when the Palo Verdes were in bloom, photo by Mitch.


A group of barrel cactus with the whale’s tongue agave (A. ovatifolia) at the Sherman Gardens.

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A small group as an accent in a complex planting at the Jardin Majorelle in Morocco, photo by Mitch Maher.

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With Dragon Trees at Lotusland.

This cactus grows readily from seed, maturing to flowering size in roughly 15 years. The Getty in particular has a spectacular mass planting of this cactus.

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13 Responses to roll out the barrel(s)

  1. Alan @ It's Not Work, It's Gardening! says:

    But when you see the one, don’t you just want more? (Says somebody who has never had to handle these) They’re just such a beautiful cactus, it’s sad to think they may no longer be in the wild. Plenty of stock to repopulate with though…

  2. hoov says:

    I was looking at my ‘Marilyn Monroe’ rose with its horrific prickles, and thought: why am I afraid of cacti? Humans think oddly.

    Your photo of Crassula pubescens ssp. radicans with the golden barrel gives me the notion that deeply red Crassula would look fabulous with Agave ‘Joe Hoak’. I’m going to try it.

  3. I’m of two minds about this (one or multiple). I love the seemingly horizonless plantings at the Huntington, but I think a single specimen, well placed, is just as effective in a residential garden. In fact, I’m toying with planting out my one golden barrel (currently in a pot) when we rip out the front lawn this winter. Surround it with some nice rocks, and it’ll be standout.

    I also have an Echinocactus grusonii with white spines (silver barrel instead of golden barrel?) but I don’t know if the spines will stay white or become yellow over time.

  4. Kris P says:

    I don’t think it’ll look silly by itself as long as you give it some companions that highlight its beauty. But are you using oven mitts to handle it?

  5. Pam/Digging says:

    I find dyckias (certain ones, anyway) much spikier and difficult to handle. But yes to the idea of displaying a single one in a pot. They don’t grow well in the ground here in Austin (too cold in winter, and too humid in summer), but in a pot they do fine because you can bring them in when it freezes. I have a solitary one on my deck and love that scrim of golden spines.

  6. David Feix says:

    I’m solidly in the camp of “more is always gonna be better” and usually plant at least 5~7 in groups where I’ve used them, twice now in different garden designs for Marilyn and Peder. I was enjoying them parked on my back patio for a couple of months last summer, but sadly I don’t have enough sun to really grow cactus in my own garden.

    Some great photos by Mitch of the Huntington, and that rooftop peninsula of golden barrel cacti at the Getty is my favorite application ever. For moi, one golden barrel cactus just looks sad. Another species great in mass are the Cleisocactus straussii. But then I’m a fool for massing just about everything if I’ve got the room to pull it off. Planted out 100 Aeonium canariense this morning, 300 Echeveria elegans the day before, it’s an addiction…

  7. What can I say, I’m going against the tide and saying you need three. They can be in containers, but I think three of different sizes would really be something special.

  8. Denise says:

    @Alan, I do want more, but I’d have to tear up more garden to find enough sun for a bigger grouping. And the sun would be in the back garden, which has been getting all the compost over the years, not the best conditions for cacti. The front gravel garden is leaner but gets a winter shadow.
    @Hoov, I need to build up a big swathe of that crassula pronto. If you see it in your neighborhood, let me know.
    @Gerhard, a silver barrel? Intriguing…
    @Kris, once it’s potted I can hold onto the pot, but mitts/gloves initially, absolutely.
    @Pam, the only drawback I’ve found with them in pots is they’re so heavy, and I move a lotta pots around!
    @David, I wonder if Irwin designed that rooftop planting. And no, you’re not a fool for massing, but very, very smart.
    @Loree, I was given three babies this summer, about an inch in diameter — I don’t think that’s the right scale yet!

  9. Neyon says:

    These images are profoundly gorgeous…they could have been taken from a Mughal garden

  10. Denise says:

    Neyon, so glad to hear you enjoy them. Except for the potted barrel cactus, they’re all photos that have appeared on the blog before. I never get tired of looking at Mitch’s photos.

  11. David Feix says:

    Denise, Irwin only designed the central bowl garden, the entire rest of the grounds were not part of his work.

  12. Luisa says:

    Ye gods, those photos. I think one golden barrel by itself can be terrific, as in the photo with the red Crassula pubescens (though I’d probably go with fave Sedum spurium ‘Voodoo’ for cold hardiness here). They do get cumbersome, but golden barrels are a lot easier to handle and safer to be around than opuntias and chollas, IMHO. (To begin with: no glochids…) My bouncy dogs do fine with them.

    I think golden barrels look best by far in mixed plantings (see all those glorious photos above), and my dream at the moment is to find one or two good-sized, drop-dead-red Ferocactus pilosus, my fave barrel, to add to the mix. Love these guys:

  13. Denise says:

    @Thanks for that, David.
    @Luisa, your ferocactus is a beauty indeed. Good luck in your quest, and I’ll keep my eyes open too.

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