Gymnocalyciums from Thailand

Will you help me solve a mystery? I'm wondering why someone would hide valuable, collectible cacti (Gymnocalycium mihanovichii variegata) in a pastry box and ship them to me from overseas.

Eight months ago

In mid-December a package from Thailand arrived with no explanation. Inside was a box of commercial pastries similar to Hostess cupcakes. I assumed it resulted from a translation error on an overseas order. Cleaning up after the holidays, I was about to throw it away when I noticed it had been resealed.

Thai pastry box with concealed gymnocalyciums

Thai pastry box with gymnocalyciums (after I unwrapped and potted them). 

I opened the box and pulled out something round, firm and wrapped in paper towels. (I figured Thai food packaging standards must be pretty lenient.) OMG. There were three spherical cacti with desiccated roots...along with several prepackaged pastries. The largest cactus was the size of a tennis ball.

I recalled that on Instagram Thai nurseries post photos of gorgeous gymnocalyciums with rainbow-sherbet hues. These were probably similar, but weeks of darkness had muted their colors. At least they were alive (they felt firm) and hopefully would grow new roots. I potted them---basically, set them atop moist cactus mix---placed them in bright shade, and gradually introduced them to greater sun to bring out any colors.

I searched online for gymno growers in the city they came from. I found several but no leads. Perhaps---as indicated by the return address---they had come from an individual? I didn't eat the pastries (I wasn't curious, not to mention the carbs), but I did air-mail a thank-you. No reply.

So, what's your theory?

I'd love to know your thoughts on this. But rather than emailing me, kindly leave a comment below so others can read it and we can discuss. And should my benefactor see this: S̄wạs̄dī thī̀rạk (hello, dear one).

Gymnocalycium: What you need to know

Gymnos that lack chlorophyll are sought-after because they show colors otherwise concealed. But less chlorophyll means less ability to photosynthesize (use the sun's rays to produce energy for growth). To keep all-red, yellow, pink or orange specimens alive, commercial growers graft them onto green Hylocereus (dragon fruit) cactus, resulting in "hotheads" or "moon cactus" commonly sold in nurseries.

Gymnocalycium mihanovichii

Each Gymnocalycium mihanovichii (moon cactus, hotheads, lollipop cactus) shares its green rootstock's vascular system. 

Although popular with newbies, such grafted cacti are tricky to grow. The rootstock needs sunlight, but the graft (scion) scorches easily. Also the rootstock grows faster than the graft, and eventually it'll split the scion, to survive, requires re-grafting. [If you'd like a post on how to graft cactus, let me know in a comment below.]

No wonder variegated "mutant" gymnos that don't need grafting are surging in popularity. Like those I received from Thailand, they do fine on their own roots. Plants blend green with brown, purple, red, pink, orange, yellow and/or cream. Each specimen is unique.

Gymnocalycium at a glance

  • Spherical and spined
  • Symmetrical bumps and ribs
  • 70+ species from South America
  • Attain 1/2-in. to 8-in. in diameter
  • Flowers are warm colors and pastels
  • Needs sun to grow and bloom
  • If no chlorophyll, have to be grafted to survive
  • With chlorophyll, can grow on their own roots
  • Less green means greater sunburn risk
  • More green means a more vigorous plant
  • Needs coarse, fast-draining soil
  • Soil should go dry between waterings
  • Don't water when dormant (winter)
  • Prone to mealybugs and root rot
  • Keep above 50 degrees F
  • Propagate from seeds or offsets

How they're doing

Gymnocalyciums from Thailand

Gymnocalyciums from Thailand eight months after unboxing and planting

By mid-July the mostly red one---the smallest---had only a few threadlike roots. No change or bloom. The purplish one grew a few roots, flowered, and set numerous buds. The third turned shades of yellow, red and orange mixed with green, established roots, sent forth pale pink flowers, and produced several small offsets (moons).

USA sources:

Mountain Crest Gardens for grafted Gymnocalycium mihanovichii cuttings

Leaf & Clay for purple moon cactus

Succulents Box "Britton & Rose Cactus" (a pinkish-green gymno growing on its own roots)

Amazon: Gymnocalycium mihanovichii variegata seeds 

Seed-started gymnos from Amazon

Seed-started gymnos vary considerably. It must be fun for growers to see what pops up. (Amazon photo)

Do you happen to know...

  • A good source of non-grafted, colorful, variegated gymnos for the US market?
  • How long it takes a seed-grown, variegated gymno to show its colors and attain several inches in diameter?
  • How to go about obtaining mature specimens from overseas growers?

Please share your comments, ideas and answers below. Thanks!

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  1. Kathy Anberg on July 25, 2019 at 8:09 am

    Holy cow. How did the USDA miss that one? I guess you have no worries about importing noxious pests or diseases from Thailand. Hope you put them in quarantine! On the bright side they certainly are interesting.

  2. Arsenia Serafica on July 25, 2019 at 8:41 am

    Thanks Debra, I’m glad you like it. I’m just wondering why they put it in pastry box even though the price of handling and shipping is the same amount of the prices of the cacti I paid for. My only thing that I told them is to deliver it to you in 3 weeks when I called them overseas. Anyway, I’m happy that still alive when they reached the final destination. I’m so sorry that they didn’t come on time.😍

    I did forget to check on the seller to find out if they are contaminated with any diseases. This is a lesson to me before I order anything else from overseas. Anyway I’m happy to see them alive and how you take care of them. I think Gymnocalycium present no problems in cultivation, and will respond well if potted on regularly every 2 or 3 years to make flowering size plants fairly quickly, some within 2 years from seeds, and are some of the finest in the Cactaceae family. What about the growing conditions? Do they need some shading from the sun in the hottest months? Love the diff color combinations.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on July 31, 2019 at 8:21 am

      Arsenia, you sweet thing! I can’t believe you went to all the trouble to order rare and collectible gymnocalyciums that aren’t available here in the US, and had them sent to me for Christmas! That’s just…AMAZING. Thank you…and you’ll be pleased that they’re doing so well and blooming! It’s so funny, I sent a thank-you to the return address on the package!

  3. Michele L on July 25, 2019 at 12:19 pm

    Debra you probably did but did you test for pests? It seems someone may have shipped these plants illegally as they did not have an inspection tag on the box. That is one of the ways invasive species are introduced into our environment and can wreck havoc with our native species.

    They are unusual though.

    Michele L

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on July 25, 2019 at 12:26 pm

      Hi Michele — Fortunately they were clean and pest-free. Good point.

  4. Alex Smith on July 25, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    Thanks Debra. Frankly, I would be suspect of any plants that came from another country via the mail. That’s one way we might have gotten those bad bugs from East Asia and Mexico, which have seriously attacked our Citrus, both Agricultural & Residential, in OC & SD. People don’t think a little cutting sneaked in a suitcase matters, it does.

  5. Stephanie Hargrave on July 28, 2019 at 7:38 am

    Hi Debra, I would encourage your readers to educate themselves about the dangers and risks of purchasing plants from overseas before EVER thinking about doing so. You can only assume these specimens were clean and pest free.

  6. Nancy on August 22, 2019 at 1:01 pm

    Debra Lee: I would be delighted to learn more about grafting cactus. I started growing succulents last spring by buying about a dozen different ones and propagating them for our spring plant sales. After that, I learned that succulents are the hot item for millennials. I’m back at it again for our fall plant sales. A new friend gave me hundreds of tiny terracotta pots that I use with cactus potting soil. I’m in Dallas, so there is the heat; but it can be drought, floods, ice, wind, tornados; hot one hour and then drop 40 degrees. So, the plants need some thought as to the weather, but that is what gardening is all about. Love your newsletter, blogs, books, and photos. It makes it easier. I especially love the photos of landscaping ideas. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on August 22, 2019 at 2:41 pm

      Hi Nancy — I’m happy to look into it for you. I do know how it’s done—and that theoretically any cactus can be grafted to any other cactus—but rather than being an “expert” with no experience, I’ll find a pro who’s willing to demonstrate how it’s done. Great idea…stay tuned!

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