Gardening: Look, don’t touch

HANDS OFF: Echinocactus grusonii, popularly known as the golden barrel cactus, golden ball or even mother-in-law's cushion is best looked at from a safe distance.
HANDS OFF: Echinocactus grusonii, popularly known as the golden barrel cactus, golden ball or even mother-in-law's cushion is best looked at from a safe distance.
  • This Mexican visitor is popular in UK conservatories but has a sting in the tail, warns David Overend.
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Some things are meant to be looked at, not touched. Parents tell that fact of life to their young children; puppies and kittens learn that fact of life when they receive a sharp pain in the nose for being too inquisitive.

And one thing best looked at and left untouched is Echinocactus grusonii, popularly known as the golden barrel cactus, golden ball or even mother-in-law’s cushion. It has sharp spines best avoided by tender digits.

Echinocactus grusonii is a well-known and easily recognisable species of cactus, and is endemic to east-central Mexico.

It’s beautiful globe-shape makes it extremely popular for growing in conservatories, on patios or anywhere where the light is good and temperature reasonable.

Of course, to see them at their best you have to travel to warmer climes, although some of the larger open-to-the-public hot houses have the space and wherewithal to cultivate them.

On its own territory, the golden barrel cactus is best suited for growing in garden rockeries, desert-type landscapes, patios and, of course, botanical gardens.

They are also grown indoors in conservatories or other glass rooms where sunlight isn’t in short supply, although they seem to have great difficulty flowering anywhere but under the open sky.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop some people from growing them indoors for their foliage rather than blooms.

The globular-shaped stem can grow up to 60ins tall and 36ins wide in the wild, or where they are given conditions similar to the natural Mexican habitat. This stem is ribbed and produces prickly yellowish spines (there is also a spineless type).

Echinocactus grusonii thrives in volcanic soil and, when happy, will produce yellow flowers during mid-summer.

The barrel cactus is fairly fast-growing at first; then the growth rate slows. So you may have to wait up to 10 years for the cactus to reach 10ins in diameter.

Like most cacti, it’s drought tolerant and needs very little care and attention to grow well.

The biggest threats to its continued good health are insufficient sunlight and over-watering – the biggest killer of container-grown and indoor-cultivated plants.

But remember when handling one to make sure you wear a pair of stout gloves to protect your hands from the prickly spines.