Gymnocalycium (2003)

PhotoBy Eric Driskill (May/June 2003)

Everyone has that problem plant you find as appealing as it is difficult to grow. Usually it is an expensive one. Each time you buy another, you try to drag out your notes, if you were lucky enough to have recorded them the last time you tried the plant.

You water a little more or a little less. Maybe it was too hot or too cold through the winter. Not enough fertilizer, or was it too much? Those are some of the challenges of the hobby that keep it from getting boring.

Sometimes, after I have lost yet another of the highly prized, expensive plants, I think that I should concentrate on the successes of growing. What bloomed this spring. What plants are doing great. Yeah, those are nice to watch. New spines, new leaves and blooms.

Gymnocalyciums are plants to which you can turn in times like these. Gymnocalycium is a large genus of globose cacti from east of the Andes in South America. Gymnocalycia were described by Ludwig Pfeiffer in 1844 for three species. The name derived from the Greek “gymnos” = naked and “calyx” = bud, referring to the smooth flower bud. Gymnocalyciums are among the most popular cacti for hobbyists. Currently three are 71 accepted species.

Gymnocalyciums are characterized as having low-growing, usually solitary stems with several ribs that are sometimes tuberculate. The flowers, funnelform to bell-shaped and white or pale pink, open during the day.

There are many gymnocalyciums from which to choose, and all seem to thrive when grown in a well-drained soil with no specialized care required. Gymnocalyciums are rewarding plants to include in your collection. A tip I heard recently suggested fertilizing a little sooner than other cacti.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Gymnocalycium mihanowichii or Ruby Ball. This is undoubtedly one of the most popular cacti in the world. It is a mutant that first appeared in Japan in 1941. Lacking chlorophyll, it can exist only when grafted onto a stalk.

This is none other than the red grafted cactus everyone thinks of when you tell them you collect cacti. You may even have a “non-cactus” friend who gave you one as a gift, knowing you enjoy the hobby. There is one small G. mihanowichii in our greenhouse that belongs to my daughter. I just can’t seem to make room for more than one small G. mihanowichii.

Gymnocalyciums are easy to grow, reasonably priced and you can find one at most places that sell cacti. Add one to your collection, and rest assured that you have one more plant with beautiful blooms that you don’t have to sweat over and feel like you’re on eggshells to grow.