James H. Schutte
Plant Common Name
In the past, the genus Opuntia included both paddle stem (pricklypears) and cylindrical stem (cholla) forms. Recently the chollas have been reclassified as Cylindropuntia. This genus contains about 33 species native to the North American south and southwest and Mexico. The many species can be found in desert habitats but also grasslands and dry, open woods.
Cholla are well branched and can take on a shrubby or tree-like appearance. The stems grow in connected segments, which break free from the mother plant easily when brushed. Wicked spines tipped with microscopic, fishhook barbs line the stems. The spines cling tenaciously to clothing, hair or flesh. These adaptations benefit the plants. When animals brush them, segments break off, cling to their fur and eventually drop of to root and start a new plant. Cholla may seem to jump out at passers by. This vegetative method of propagation is far more efficient than seed germination in the dry, desert environment.
Most cholla species bloom in spring. The blooms come in a wide range of flower colors including yellow, bronze, red and magenta. The persistent cylindrical fruits are heavily armed themselves, fleshy or dry and contain tan seeds. Plants rarely self sow in the desert but will in less harsh growing environments.
Hardiness and culture are species dependent, but overall these cacti thrive in full sun and marginal to poor, sharply drained soil. Some species are quite hardy while others are very frost tender. Caution should be taken when handling these plants. In addition to larger spines, they have areoles armed with many tiny, needle-like spines called glochids that easily detach and become embedded in the skin. Heavy, thick gloves are a must when working with or around them.
Cholla are amenable to container culture but are not commonly grown in pots. They are typically reserved for in ground cactus gardens or troughs. Only the most ardent devotees of cacti tend to grow these fierce, prickly plants.