Rolling Out the Barrels: With their intriguing
texture and color, golden barrel cactuses gain popularity.
Originally published in the Los Angeles
Photos and text copyright (c) Debra Lee Baldwin. All rights reserved.
Chris Sullivan wishes he hadn’t bothered to install
an irrigation system. The “Palm Springs-style” front garden that he and
wife Margaret designed and planted 2-1/2 years ago needs no water other
than the occasional rainstorm, although “we do hose off the barrel
cactuses in summer if they’re dusty,” Chris says.
Barrel cactuses are showing up in more
dry landscapes these days, and not just because they need so little
water. Designers often use golden barrels to provide intriguing texture,
dramatic pattern (when used in numbers) and bright yellow color
year-round. When backlit, the spines surround the plant with a glowing
In spring, buds form a whorl at the crown, and a
succession of satiny yellow flowers unfurl for months.
“Golden barrels are more popular than ever,” says Molly Thongthiraj, co-owner of California Cactus Center in Pasadena.
Five years ago, the store provided the
Getty Center with 552 of the spiny tuffets for the South Promontory
garden. The plants — 15 to 19 inches in diameter when installed — are
now 20 to 24 inches, Thongthiraj says.
The inch-per-year growth rate slows as
golden barrels approach maturity at about 36 inches in diameter.
Golden barrels tolerate more irrigation
than other cactuses and consequently do not rot as easily. According to
Thongthiraj, the plants do equally well in desert gardens and in
landscapes that require slightly more water.
“They’re the perfect finishing touch for a succulent garden,” she says.
The Sullivans’ previous residence mixed spherical and columnar cactuses with aloes, agaves, kalanchoes and other
succulents — plants that store water in fleshy leaves and stems in order
to survive drought.
The couple’s new home has a front garden that’s smaller, so they disciplined themselves.
“With succulents, it’s tempting to want one of everything,” Margaret says.
They went with a limited palette of barrel cactuses and other sculptural, architectural plants that suited
the contemporary lines of their remodeled home. Against a backdrop of
greenish tan walls, columnar cactuses mix with Yucca rostrata trees with
Chris planted one yucca so its trunk was parallel to the ground. The tree has since curved upward, lending a
sculptural element that contrasts effectively with the angular hardscape
and the setting’s strong vertical lines.
Enhancing the composition are boulders from the couple’s previous garden. Other transplants include low-water
Mexican blue fan palms (Brahea armata) and Napoleon’s hat (Kalanchoe
beharensis), diminutive succulent trees with boat-shaped, feltlike leaves.
Through it all, clusters of golden barrel cactuses pop up like spiny beach balls.
The Sullivans made a point not to place plants equidistant from each other.
“We gave some thought to how they might look in
nature,” Margaret says. “Randomly spaced, odd-numbered groupings seemed
to work best.”
Because the soil was compacted — “like concrete,” Chris says — they hired a crew to haul a significant amount
to the dump.
“We brought in 10 yards of decomposed granite for the substrate,” he says. “On top of that went a blend of DG
and cactus mix. Our main goal was good drainage. These plants need loose
soil that drains well.”
The top dressing is 3/8-inch golden gravel. The installation probably cost more than a typical frontyard
landscape, Chris says, declining to provide specifics, “but it’s 100
times less work than a lawn.”
The new garden gets no pesticides or fertilizer, and rabbits---which eat ornamental plants in neighbors'
gardens---leave the Sullivans' alone. Chris keeps a safe distance, too,
and uses long-handled tweezers to extract weeds growing close to the
Thongthiraj says her father---who founded the specialty nursery 35 years ago---likely would have
appreciated the Sullivan garden.
"He had a passion for golden barrels
and taught us kids how to collect and germinate the seeds. We used to
hate having to do it. His goal was to have a million of them.”
The nursery may not have a million of them, but propagating golden barrels has proved worthwhile.
“Surprisingly, they’re hugely popular in China,” Thongthiraj says. “We ship them there all the time — whole
Siting: Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus
grusonii) can thrive in hot, dry landscapes but is native to coastal
Mexico, so it doesn’t mind cool, misty conditions. It is hardy to about
Digging: A transplanted barrel doesn’t
require a deep hole, but if it’s too shallow, the weight of the plant
may crush its roots. It’s best to trim them; they will grow back
rapidly. Give roots about a week to heal before watering.
Lifting: Plant barrel cactuses when they’re
small, about the size of bowling balls, so they’re still easy to lift.
By the time they’re 2 feet across, the plants weigh hundreds of pounds.
To lift one without breaking its spines, lasso it with an old, soft
garden hose, or hold the plant between wads of crumpled newspaper. Wear
puncture-proof gardening or welder’s gloves.
Watering: For optimal growth, keep the soil
moist (but not soggy) during the spring growing season.. Avoid soaking
the crown; hand-watering or drip irrigation is best.
Considerations: Golden barrels are not kid- or
pet-friendly. Over time, they will lean in the direction of greatest sun
exposure. Give the plants full sun all day or make their tilt look
natural by installing them at the base of a boulder.
Resources: Any nursery with a good selection
of cactus and succulents should have golden barrels. Sources include the
California Cactus Center in Pasadena, (626) 795-2788,
www.cactuscenter.com; Cactus Ranch in Reseda, (818) 894-5694; Tropic
World Nursery in Escondido (where the Sullivans purchased their plants),
(760) 746-6108; the Plant Man Nursery in San Diego, (619) 297-0077; and
the Huntington Botanical Gardens’ May and October plant sales,
www.huntington.org (type “plant sales” into the search box).
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