Mini cholla cactus size

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Saturday – January 04, 2014

From: Gold canyon, AZ
Region: Southwest
Topic: Cacti and Succulents
Title: Debugging and Preserving Dried Cholla Cactus
Answered by: Mike Tomme


Hi. Recently found an intact skeleton of a cholla cactus. I want to Bring it in our house. Are there any dangers associated with this, like bugs inside the “branches?” how would you suggest I preserve it? Thank you.


I’d never thought about this before. I suppose there could be some little “critters” hiding in the holes of Cylindropuntia imbricata (Tree cholla) (assuming that is the species you have) and that those critters could come crawling or slithering out when you bring it in the house. But, people have been bringing them in their houses for use as walking sticks or decorations for a long time, so that can’t be too big a problem.

If it were me, I wouldn’t worry about any insects, but since you asked the question, you obviously are. So, I’m going to toss out a few ideas. I don’t know how big your specimen is so some of these may not be practical.

Put it in a freezer for a week or so,

Put it in the attic – a week or so of Arizona heat should kill anything living in there,

Cover it with a big garbage bag, throw in a handful of moth balls and let it sit for a week or so – leave it outside when you do this so the bugs can leave.

Again, I don’t think it will cause much of a problem if you just bring it in like it is.

As for preservation, it will last a long time without you doing anything to it, but you could always treat it with a sealant (basically an oil) or a spray on coating like polyurethane. Either of these has the potential to change the color or apperarance. I’d suggest consulting with a paint store or home center for all your options.

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Photo by Hank Shaw

Readers of this space know I am fascinated by the fruits of the desert, especially the Sonoran Desert. One of those fruits is the cholla cactus. More specifically, the unopened flower buds of that cactus. Yep, cholla buds are edible.

More than edible, in fact. Properly prepared, they taste like a fantastical combination of green bean, artichoke heart and asparagus. Here’s how to get there.

Cholla buds need to be gathered in spring, anywhere from March to early May depending on the species and where you live. And where you live matters. Cholla (choy-ah) only live in the Southwest quarter of the United States (of course they also live in Mexico), so I am talking about the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and parts of Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.

The plant is a crazy-looking cactus. It starts with a central stalk that eventually gets woody, then grows “arms” in all directions at once. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it, although I am certain there is one in there somewhere. Oh, and cholla are covered in nasty spines. Covered. And everyone’s favorite, the so-called jumping cholla seems to be able to throw its spines at you. Friendly plant, this one. For eating, most people favor the buckhorn, staghorn, and pencil cholla.

Photo by Chrysa Robertson

Every spring the cactus puts out new arms and an array of flower buds. These of course turn into flowers of many colors. I’ve seen red, yellow and kinda lavenderish ones. After that, it sets fruit very similar to those of the prickly pear — and yes, you can make a cholla fruit syrup with them that is pretty close to my recipe for prickly pear syrup. But in this case it is the buds before the flowers form that you want.

Who thought this one up? Apparently the Tohono O’Odham Indians of the Sonora. (You can buy them already processed from Native Seed Search here.) They pluck them off the cactus with wooden chopstick-like things — regular tongs work fine — and then meticulously remove the spines.

If you want to do this, remember the Forager’s Rule: Don’t take even half the buds off any one cactus. Take a few from one, then a few from another, until you have enough. Besides, you want fruit, right?

So. Pluck off some buds with tongs and put them into a paper grocery bag. One cool tip is to find some sticky plant nearby, like the creosote bush, to brush your buds before you twist them off the cactus. To get the rest of the spines off, I built something like an archaeologist’s sifting box, which I use to rub off the spines.

Photo by Hank Shaw

Use a stick, or wooden paddle, or a thick glove to rough up the buds a bit (don’t wail on them, though) to knock the spines off. This will get most of them off. Sadly, most is not all. And, like their cousins the prickly pears, cholla have glochids, too. Glochids. Evil, nasty, tricksy glochids. Nearly invisible spinelets that are like getting fiberglass into your skin. Many will come off in the screen, but not all.

Now you need to put on a glove and put your cholla in a sheet pan or something like it. Get out a pair of tweezers and pick off the few remaining glochids. Be patient and do it right now, because they are devilishly hard to get off once you cook the buds or dry them.

Photo by Hank Shaw

Now you have a bowl full of cholla buds. They will keep for a week or so in the fridge, incidentally. What to do with them?

My advice: Dehydrate them. Fresh cholla are nice, but they get the same slimy thing going on as do nopales, the pads of the prickly pear. Not my favorite, although if you are into slime get your freak on. There is a way to cook them enough so the slime dissipates, and then you can pickle them, but that’s another post.

What I do is blanch my cholla, then dehydrate at about 105°F, which keeps them pretty and green. By blanching I mean boiling in very salty water for 1 minute, then shocking in a big bowl of icy water. If you skip this step, the cholla won’t be as pretty when you cook them, but it’s not strictly necessary. You can also could dry the buds in your oven set to its lowest setting.

Dried cholla buds will last until the Second Coming. Keep them in a mason jar, and if you have one of those silicon packets, drop one in; this keeps moisture out of the jar.

To eat cholla buds, rehydrate them overnight in some water, or boil them straight away. Regardless they need to be simmered until tender, which can take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. If you really like them and want to eat your cholla buds faster, dehydrate, cook, then freeze in a bag.

How to use them? As a cool accent in any Southwestern dish. Mixed with beans, especially tepary beans, which are native to the Sonoran Desert, is how I like to use them. I put some in my recipe for teal in a jar, as well as my Sonoran quail recipe. The Tohono O’Odham toss them in a sort of antipasto salad, or just sauteed with some chile and onions.

Incidentally, if you want to learn more about all the cool edible plants in the Desert Southwest, you could do worse than to pick up Wendy Hodgson’s book Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert. It’ll blow your mind how much good stuff there is in a seemingly desolate place.

Photo by Hank Shaw


hello folks. its a cool triple digits here in the senora desert ( AZ ).. I just got back from harvesting some “stag horn cholla”
i have a question for you guys.. how do you guys process this stag horn cholla ( CACTUS ) i know some of you have used it.. this is my plan:
i have cut off several branches with pieces i think that will make a nice handle’s.. i have them in my bbq right now drying out. after they have air dried (in this heat i figure 2 weeks tops.) i then plan on trying my hand at stabilizing them with a pickle jar, pressure gauge and pump the air out.. and I will buy that stabilizing stuff you can get at ACE.. then i will use epoxy to fill the center of the cactus as when it dries it will be hollow inside, at least from the wild stuff iv seen rotting by the cactus’s.. mix the epoxy with some sparkles ( or something for little bling factor) and maybe even dye it depending on the project at hand…. then i plan on filling the inside of the cactus up.. this will make a solid attach the tang too..
i did notice some of the stag horn cactus that had been out in the elements for years that one could use maybe. laying at the foot of the cactus.. but I was not sure if thats what you guys used or not.. i did not investigate it very far as i was busy with the cactus. heh, and any cholla can bite you if you not careful.. and with a teddy bear cholla right next to the stag horn.. i was focused on what i was doing.
if any of you have used stag horn cholla…. how did you prep it for use in a knife!!
here is one of goo’s knifes using the stuff.. i remember one of you used the stuff for life of me i can not remember who it was..

i really like it for a handle.. and i have a bunch of these plants on my land.. so its free!!! and my grandma use to say “if its free its for me” another fav of hers and one iv adopted “i could complain but who would listen.. ”
at first i thought tai goo just made up the stag horn part of the cactus to help with sales.. so i goggled and sure enough there is a stag horn cholla. lol.. guess maybe the Indians used it back in the day for tool handles.. not sure why else it would of got that name as it dose not really look like any stag horn iv seen.

Cholla Cactus


Most cholla cactus have orange or greenish-yellow flowers with a variety of colors, even among the same species. Most species bloom April through June, depending on local conditions. Stems and joints vary in width, length, shape, and color, as well as in the profusion of spines and glochids. Chollas may appear as ground creepers, shrubs or trees, varying in height from less than a foot (Club or Devil Cholla) to as much as 15 feet (Chain-Fruit Cholla).

Information on the species below is based on wild, non-cultivated samples.

Opuntia acanthocarpa

This light green cholla is widespread, appearing in different locales. Spine sheaths are inconspicuous and light colored. Five variations include acanthocarpa, coloradensis, ganderi, major and thornberi.

Opuntia spinosior

Grows from desert floors to grasslands to lower mountain slopes, developing a thick trunk and with purple jointed joints.

Desert: Chihuahuan Desert of southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico
Height: Up to 8 feet
Joints: Thick, tubercled, covered with gray spines
Flowers: From deep purple to yellow and white
Fruit: Flesh, spineless, yellow in winter
Elevation: 2,000-7,000 feet

Opuntia fulgida

The largest of the chollas, up to 15 feet tall, is a very spiny cactus, usually a shrub, but sometimes more like a tree. New fruits are added to those from previous seasons, creating a chain up to 2 feet long — hence the name “chain fruit.”

Desert: Sonoran Desert of central and south Arizona and northwest Mexico
Height: Up to 15 feet
Joints: Small, oblong, yellow-green with short, colored spines
Flowers: White and pink petals streaked with lavender
Fruit: 1 1/2 inch green, spineless, pear-shaped berries grow in clusters and hang in long, branched chains
Elevation: 0-4,000 feet

Opuntia leptocaulis

The most slender of all chollas, and the mostly widely distributed in the Chihuahuan desert. Red berries give it a seasonal appearance.

Desert: Chihuahuan Desert of southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas
Height: 4-6 feet
Joints: Slender and smooth, uninterrupted by tubercles
Flowers: Yellow to bronze
Fruit: Bright-red, grape-sized berries last throughout the winter
Elevation: 200-5,000 feet

Opunria clavata, Opucia parishii, Opuntia schotti, Opuntia stanlyi

The various species of Devil Cholla are all Club Cholla, so-called because they have club-shaped joints with well-defined tubercles. Devil Cholla have no sheaths on spines. All are low-growing, often forming thick mats that can be impenetrable. Spines come in all colors, but can be sharp as daggers.

Opuntia clavata
Desert: Chihuahuan of central New Mexico
Height: Up to 4 inches
Joints: Form at base of older joints and lie on the ground
Flowers: Lemon-yellow to greenish
Fruit: Yellow, spiny, 3 inches long
Elevation: 6,000-8,000 feet

Opuntia parishii
Desert: Mojave Desert of eastern California, southern Nevada and eastern Arizona
Height: Up to 4 inches
Joints: Obovoid segments up to an inch in diameter
Flowers: Lemon-yellow with greenish centers
Fruit: Fleshy, smooth, yellow, to 3 inches long
Elevation: 6,000-8,000 feet

Opuntia schotti
Desert: Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas
Height: Up to 12 inches
Joints: Form at base of older joints and lie on the ground
Flowers: Lemon-yellow to greenish
Fruit: Yellow, spiny, 3 inches long
Elevation: 1,000-5,000 feet

Opuntia stanlyi
Desert: Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts from Southern California to southwestern New Mexico
Height: Up to 12 inches
Joints: Form at base of older joints and lie on the ground
Flowers: Lemon-yellow to greenish
Fruit: Yellow, spiny, 3 inches long
Elevation: 300-4,000 feet

Opuntia ramoissima

Usually a low shrub growing in the driest deserts, prominent yellow or tan spine sheaths have an orange tip. Only cholla with a grooved surface.

Desert: Sonoran Desert of southeastern California, southern Nevada and southwestern Arizona
Height: Up to 5 feet
Joints: Pencil-sized, gray stems are grooved, producing diamond-shaped tubercles.
Flowers: Dark pink to apricot
Fruit: Spiny, dry burrs
Elevation: 100-3,000 feet

Opuntia kleiniae

This trunkless cholla is similar to Pencil and Christmas chollas, but has thicker stems. Spines grow 4 to a cluster and point down.

Desert: Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts from central Arizona to western Texas.
Height: 3-7 feet
Joints: Thick and tuberculate
Flowers: Pink to purple
Fruit: Smooth red or orange
Elevation: 2,000-6,500 feet

Opuntia arbuscula

Similar to Klein’s and Christmas chollas, Pencil Cholla grows with a trunk instead of as a sprawling shrub. Enjoys sandy and gravelly plains, valleys and washes.

Desert: Sonoran Desert of southeastern California and southwestern Arizona
Height: 2-5 feet
Joints: Long, thin, deep green pencil-sized without tubercles
Flowers: Yellow to orange
Fruit: Fleshy and green
Elevation: 1,000-4,500 feet

Opuntia pulchella

This cholla grows in a clump from a bristled-covered tuber, favoring higher elevation dry-lake borders and sandy flats

Desert: Northern Mojave Desert from eastern California to southern Utah
Height: Up to 10 inches
Joints: Narrowly club-shaped to cylindrical, 1 inch diameter
Flowers: Pink to magenta with yellow-green filaments
Fruit: Smooth, red, fleshy and barbed, up to 1 inch long
Elevation: 4,500-7,000 feet

Opuntia echinocarpa

White or yellow sheaths provide this cholla both the common names Silver and Gold. This bushy, short-trunked species has many short terminal joints at the ends of longer ones.

Desert: Sonoran Desert of western Arizona, southern Nevada and southeastern California
Height: Up to 5 feet
Joints: Small, oblong, yellow-green with short, colored spines
Flowers: Greenish yellow, out portions red-streaked
Fruit: Spiny and dry up when ripe
Elevation: 1,000-5,000 feet

Opuntia versicolor

With forked branches resembling deer antlers this tree-like cactus hybridizes easily with Buckhorn and Cane chollas, making identification difficult.

Desert: Sonoran Desert within 100 miles of Tucson, Arizona, and south into Mexico
Height: 3-15 feet
Joints: Dull green forming very long stems
Flowers: All varieties (versicolor)
Fruit: Green, pear-shaped, fleshy, sometimes forming chains
Elevation: 1,000-4,000 feet

Opuntia bigelovii

Said to resemble the fuzzy arms and legs of a Teddy Bear, it can be distinguished by its dense, straw-colored spines and yellow to green flowers.

Desert: Sonoran Desert of western Arizona, southern Nevada and southeastern California
Height: 5 -9 feet
Joints: Small, oblong, yellow-green with short, colored spines
Flowers: Greenish to yellow with lavender streaks
Fruit: Egg-shaped, yellow to 1 inch long
Elevation: 100-5,000 feet

Opuntia imbricata

Green and somewhat spineless, this cholla resembles the Cane Cholla, which also turns purplish in colder weather. Prevalent in desert flats, and in Pinyon and Juniper stands.

Desert: Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico and Texas north to semi-desert areas of eastern Colorado and western Oklahoma.
Height: Up to 7 feet
Joints: Very fat with tubercles
Flowers: Deep lavender to red
Fruit: 2-inch-long, yellow, oval
Elevation: 2,000 -7,000 feet

Opuntia whipplei

These cholla often grow as shrubs or in mats on plains and grasslands.

Desert: Chihuahuan Desert of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico
Height: Up to 30 inches
Joints: Green, cylindrical to 6 inches long
Flowers: Pale to lemon yellow
Fruit: Yellow, spineless round to ovoid, about 1 1/2 inches long
Elevation: 4,500-7,000 feet

Opuntia wolfii

This common cholla of the Colorado Desert has brown, 1-inch spines with translucent sheaths.
Desert: Western edge of Sonoran Desert to Baja California
Height: Up to 6 feet
Joints: Branched from base in cylindrical segments
Flowers: Pale brown with purple filaments
Fruit: Dry, tubercled, 1 inch long
Elevation: 1,000-4,000 feet

— A.R. Royo

Cacti of Arizona

Plants > Cacti > Arizona

Below is a list of all cacti found in Arizona; the main species first, those with a photograph and full description page, followed by all other species, generally less common.
Cacti are found all across the state; they are most numerous in Pima County in the far south (51 species), and least common in Greenlee County in the east (8 species).
Some of the most localized plants are coryphantha recurvata, cylindropuntia abyssi, escobaria robbinsiorum, pachycereus schottii (senita) and several pediocactus species, while the most widespread, occurring across half (or more) of the state, include escobaria vivipara, cylindropuntia acanthocarpa, cylindropuntia leptocaulis, opuntia chlorotica, opuntia engelmannii and opuntia phaeacantha.
Coryphantha scheeri, giant pincushion cactus (AZ, NM, TX)
Cylindropuntia abyssi, Peach Springs canyon cholla (AZ)
Echinocereus apachensis, Apache hedgehog cactus (AZ)
Echinocereus pectinatus, Mexican rainbow cactus (AZ, NM, TX)
Echinomastus intertextus, woven spine pineapple cactus (AZ, NM, TX)
Escobaria missouriensis, Missouri foxtail cactus (AZ, CO, ID, KS, MT, ND, NE, NM, OK, SD, TX, WY)
Escobaria robbinsiorum, Cochise foxtail cactus (AZ)
Mammillaria macdougalii, MacDougal pincushion cactus (AZ)
Mammillaria mainiae, counterclockwise fishhook cactus (AZ)
Mammillaria thornberi, Thornber’s pincushion cactus (AZ)
Mammillaria viridiflora, green flowered pincushion cactus (AZ, NM)
Mammillaria wrightii, Wright’s nipple cactus (AZ, NM, TX)
Opuntia macrorhiza, Twist spine prickly pear (AZ, CO, ID, KS, MT, NE, NM, OK, SD, TX, UT, WY)
Opuntia martiniana, seashore cactus (AZ, UT)
Opuntia pinkavae, Pinkava’s prickly pear (AZ, UT)
Pediocactus paradinei, Kaibab pincushion cactus (AZ)
Pediocactus peeblesianus, Navajo pincushion cactus (AZ)
Pediocactus sileri, Siler’s pincushion cactus (AZ, UT)
Sclerocactus papyracanthus, paperspine fishhook cactus (AZ, NM)
Sclerocactus sileri, Siler fishhook cactus (AZ)
Sclerocactus whipplei, Whipple’s fishhook cactus (AZ, UT)

Brilliant view

(Image credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)

Spring has once again returned to the deserts of North America, and with her return, so too have the amazing colorful blooms of desert wildflowers and cacti. Because of the winter rains, this land, so commonly dominated by the browns, blacks and grays of stone, is magnificently transformed and once again carpeted for a short time with a kaleidoscope of yellows, blues, reds and orange. Shown here, an explosion of California poppies, Eschscholzia californica, blanket a desert hillside in the Sonoran Desert.

Colorful contributors

(Image credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)

Some of the great contributors to this annual spring spectacle of color are the group of cacti commonly known as cholla (choy-ya). Members of the genus Cylindropuntia, the 20 species of cholla cacti are commonly found in all the deserts of North America. They tend to be shrubby cacti, but some species grow as ground creepers or even as small trees. Their stems are made up of segmented joints. Their fleshy stems are in reality modified branches that serve as locations for storing water, carrying out photosynthesis and producing flowers. A chain-fruit cholla, Opuntia fulgida, is shown here.

Variety of sizes

(Image credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)

Cholla vary in size from a few feet to as tall as 15 feet (4.5 m). They grow best in well-drained soils and require plenty of direct sunshine. They can be found growing in the low desert regions, desert foothills and up the sides of mountains to the forest edge. The beautiful blooming cholla shown here grows in the White Mountains of Arizona at an elevation of 5,040 feet (1,536 m) near historic Fort Apache.

Spiny leaves

(Image credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)

Like most cacti, cholla have modified leaves that now grow as sharp spines. In most species of cholla, these spines are covered with a papery sheath that helps cool the plant from the extreme summer heat. These sheaths can be bright and colorful but are most often somewhat creamy in color.


(Image credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)

Common with all species of cactus, cholla tubular segments are covered with small, wart-like structures known as areoles. Areoles are modified branches and are the location on the cholla from which spines, glochids (small, hairlike barbed bristles), small leaves and flowers grow. Areoles and all the structures that grow from them can be seen in this photo of a beautiful blooming cholla.

Wooden bones

(Image credit: NPS)

Cholla plants have a woody skeleton beneath their green, fleshy skin. This woody skeleton is what allows some species of cholla to grow so tall. Once the plant dies and the fleshy skin decays, the cholla wood, which is hollow with regularly spaced holes, is used by many desert animals. Shown here, a Harris’s antelope squirrel, Ammospermophilus harrisii, uses a cholla skeleton as a lookout post for potential predators.

Bright blooms

(Image credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)

Cholla flowers bloom in a wide variety of colors. Some are shades of red and pink; some are shades of green and yellow. Some are indiscreet, while others are bold and spectacular. The coppery orange blooms on the cholla shown above add to the splendid bloom of color during the spring across the North American deserts.

Teddy bears

(Image credit: NPS)

Cholla reproduce most commonly by clonal propagation. The many joints of their segmented stems are loosely attached and easily break off and fall to the ground. The stem segment lying on the ground will produce roots, and soon a new, rooted cholla begins to grow. Sometimes, this type of reproduction can create what botanists call a cholla forest where hundreds of plants grow in close proximity. Shown here is the teddy bear cholla, Cylindropuntia bigelovii, a forest located in Joshua Tree National Park.

Silver Cholla

(Image credit: NPS)

There are many spectacular species of cholla cacti. Shown here is the beautiful blooming Silver Cholla, Opuntia echinocarpa. It’s sometimes also called Gold Cholla because the spines covering sheaths of this cholla species vary in shades of white and yellow. This is a common cholla of the Western Sonoran and Mojave Deserts and can grow up to 5 feet in height.

Staghorn Cholla

(Image credit: NPS)

This beautifully blooming Staghorn Cholla, Opuntia versicolor, gets its name from the many forked branches that early botanists thought resembled the antlers of a deer. The green, fleshy fruits of the Staghorn Cholla sometimes grow in long, hanging chains. This is a common cholla throughout the Sonoran Desert deep into Mexico. It tends to grow at elevations from 1,000 – 4,000 feet (305 – 1,219 m).

Christmas Cholla

(Image credit: NPS)

The branches of the Christmas Cholla, Opuntia leptocaulis, are the most slender of all cholla species. The bright-red, grape-sized fruits become ripe during late fall and early winter, giving rise to the species’ common name. Christmas Cholla are most commonly found in the Chihuahuan Desert, but they do appear in the lower regions of the Sonoran Desert. Christmas Cholla grow best in elevations ranging from 200 – 5,000 feet. (61 – 1,524 m).

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