Cholla backlit (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

The Joys of Cholla (Cylindropuntia)

In Baja California recently I was showing off my knowledge of native succulents when one “got” me. The friend who was taking a video with my phone gasped when I unsuccessfully tried to set a 3-inch-long chunk of cholla (“choy-ah”) cactus back onto a boulder. It resolutely clung to my fingers.


Cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Cholla spines have tiny, fish-hook barbs.


When I tried to shake it off, the cholla hopped into a more secure position. Next I tried to remove it with my other hand, and spines stuck to that one too. Wow, what a determined little cactus!

Cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

I had help removing these cholla spines. Watch the 20-second tweezered extraction.

Cylindropuntia, of which there are 30+ species, are sometimes referred to as “jumping chollas” or “horse cripplers.” Like many other succulents, chollas reproduce via both seeds and cuttings. Cylindrical joints detach readily from the mother plant and cling with astonishing tenacity to whomever or whatever brushed them. They take root where they fall off, usually far enough from the original plant so they’re not competing with it for water, sun or nutrients.


Cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

A cholla (cylindropuntia) with beautifully backlit orange spines

 My Mexico experience reminded me of when I addressed the Tucson Cactus & Succulent Society, where I made the mistake of saying I don’t recommend that anyone grow cholla. “Could there be a more unfriendly plant?” I asked the group. Well, you’d think I’d insulted the entire state of Arizona.


cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Arizona residential architecture and gardens are distinctive. Textures and colors blend to create lovely desert landscapes appropriate to the region.

“There are more than a dozen different species,” members told me, each more eager than the last to extol the virtues of cylindropuntias. “Cholla is beautiful.”

Cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Cholla flowers come in all warm colors.

“This is my cholla comb,” one told me, pulling a small comb from his shirt pocket. “If I get spines in my clothing or skin, I just comb them out.”

Cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

A mourning dove nests in Cylindropuntia fulgida at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson.

“Cholla is an important part of the desert ecology,” said another. “Nesting birds feel safe in it. Snakes, coyotes and other predators can’t get to them or their young.” Birds aren’t alone in using cholla as a security enhancement, she added. “I have it below my bedroom window to keep burglars out.”

Cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

At Tohona Chul botanic garden near Tucson.

Intrigued, I went on a cholla hunt. I found this orange-flowered one at Tohona Chul botanic garden near Tucson. Not bad looking, considering it survives broiling desert heat and temperatures below freezing, with no water for months.

Cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Cylindropuntia versicolor

Cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Cylindropuntia versicolor flowers

Cholla comes in more colors than I’d assumed—not just its flowers, but even its spines and skin. The specimen of Cylindropuntia versicolor above has green, rose-red and maroon segments, and translucent, rust-red flowers.

Cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Cylindropuntia bigelovii (teddy bear cactus)

Cylindropuntia bigelovii is commonly called teddy bear cholla. Look how fuzzy it is, and its cute little ears. Like all chollas—like most spiny cacti, for that matter—it’s beautiful backlit.

Colla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Cylindropuntia bigelovii flowers

The flower petals of teddy bear cholla are buttery yellow tipped in rose-red.

Cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Cylindropuntia spinosoir

Cylindropuntia spinosoir, illuminated by late afternoon sun in a Tucson suburb, glows pink.

Cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Cylindropuntia fulgida var. mammillata (chain fruit cholla)

Chain fruit cholla forms ropy, pendant strands. Doesn’t this one look like a face?

cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Cylindropuntia ramossisimus (diamond cholla)

Cylindropuntia ramosissima, aka diamond cholla, has pencil-thin stems lined with glittering, translucent toothpicks.

cholla cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

I pretended to hug Cylindropuntia fulgida, then sent this photo to my new friends at the Tucson Cactus & Succulent Society.

As for my Mexico adventure, what was it about those spines that made them stick? Like those of all cacti, cholla spines are modified leaves. But cholla spines differ in that they have papery sheaths lined with microscopic barbs. Try to pull one from your skin, and you’ll discover it’s well anchored. Sure it’ll come out, but if a bit of barb remains, you’ll feel it whenever pressure is applied to the area. If that’s just too annoying, you may have to dig it out with a needle.

“Living and working around cactus is an art that requires the balance of a dancer, the strength of a weight lifter and a high tolerance for pain,” one of my favorite authors, Maureen Gilmer, wrote in the Desert Sun. “In time we become immune to the arrows of these New World beauties, and in all our homes are the tools of the trade. These are the magnifying glass, sharp needles and tweezers with a bit of Neosporin afterwards if the going gets bloody.”

Fortunately, “my” cholla’s spines were shallowly embeded. The only thing that stung was my pride.


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  1. Susan LaFreniere on February 20, 2020 at 6:05 am

    Nice article
    Am researching types of cholla, especially from Baja

  2. Rita on May 22, 2020 at 7:18 am

    Cylindropuntia bigelovii (Teddy bear cholla) Is the best for me. I love it 😻

  3. Mickey Rosato on September 3, 2020 at 6:00 pm

    I have a cholla. I noticed that in the center of the spines on the fruits is a clear drop of honeydew like substance. I did not notice any insects. At first I suspected this was honeydew from a sucking insect but have seen any. Any idea what this might be?

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on September 3, 2020 at 7:15 pm

      Hi Mickey — Do you think it might just be juice from the fruit?

    • Mac on September 12, 2020 at 10:02 pm

      The product of extra-floral nectaries. Common in chollas and prickly pear. They secrete a nectar which usually attracts ants, which protect the new fruit or growth by defending the new food source.

      • Debra Lee Baldwin on September 13, 2020 at 8:49 am

        Thank you, Mickey!

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