Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Crazy Plants: Jumping Cholla

The cholla (pronounced CHOY-uh) is also known as the teddy bear cactus due to its soft appearance at a distance.
There are several species of cholla, but one of the most memorable is the jumping cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida). The common name comes from the fact that the spine-covered segments of the plant seems to jump at you. Apparently, not only can they bounce, but if only a single spine gets you, it can easily cause an entire section to spring off of the tree and embed itself in your skin. They then prove to be painful and difficult to remove.

Believe it or not, the jumping cholla is commonly used in cultivation, especially in the areas where it is native. It may help that the flowers are a bright shade of pink. Chollas can be quite useful, such as habitat for several native species, including as a nesting place for a species of thrasher.The can also be planted to create a natural fence since the well-armed nature of the plant would discourage all but the craziest intruder.

A close up of a cholla spine
The plant's appearance is rather like a tree, especially when it becomes older. The stems are jointed, which is part of the reason section break off so easily. It's an adaptive feature, as it is the major means by which the plant reproduces and spreads. Though fruit is produced, it is most often sterile. The fruits often stay on the tree for years, collecting in chains that led to another common name: the chain-fruit cholla.

One of my very early memories involves this plant. My grandparents used to live in Arizona, and my grandfather made me afraid of the jumping cholla. He told me to steer clear, or it would jump out and bite me. The warning was necessary, as my father ended up getting stuck soon thereafter. Needless to say, my six-year-old self gave them a wide berth!

Source is Desert Connections. Images are from Wikimedia Commons and are under a crative commons license or are copyright free: one, two.


  1. These things are mean. I've had more than a couple stick to me despite staying quite far away from them. They hurt like mad when you try to pull them off too. It's like they are trying to dig in further and you just have to suck it up and rip it off of you'll stand there for an hour trying to pry it off bit by bit.
    I don't miss them, but at the same time I kinda do. You can be quite intimidating to someone who's had a run in with these if they spot you wielding a large chunk on the end of a stick.

  2. I feel very lucky that I've never been stuck. Then again, I haven't spent a great deal of time walking through the wilderness of the American southwest.

    The spines are practically covered in tiny fish hooks, which help them stick in. That's why it's so painful to remove them.

    The skeleton of the chollas is actually for sale for use in terrariums. That's after the spines have been removed, of course. It has an almost honeycomb appearance, and some people like to use it for decorative purposes as well.