Teddy bear cholla cactus

Jumping Cholla

Chain Fruit Cholla – Opuntia fulgida

Cholla is a term applied to various shrubby cacti with segmented branches. The “jumping cholla”, Opuntia fulgida, is a very spiny cactus, usually a shrub, but sometimes more like a tree, with a number of irregular, jointed branches bearing sharp-barbed spines that are painful and difficult to remove. Because the cholla’s 3- to 8-inch joints separate easily, they appear sometimes to “jump” to attack passersby. Also called the “chain fruit cholla” this variety grows to a height of 6 to 15 feet and a diameter of up to 8 feet. It is the largest of the cholla; other cholla specimens are usually much smaller.

The somewhat drooping branches bear light-green, 1/2- to 1-inch leaves only when young. Clusters of green, spineless, pear-shaped fruit about an inch in length hang in chains from the branches. Some remain attached for several years, bearing new flowers annually, sometimes with no seeds. New fruits are added to those from previous seasons, creating a chain of spineless fruit up to 2 feet long — hence the name “chain fruit.”

In times of drought, deer and bighorn sheep have traditionally relied on this juicy fruit as a source of food and water. These days, cattle often rely on it for the same reasons, sometimes growing fond enough of this desert delicacy to ignore the sharp barbs of its jointed branches, even in moister times.

The teddy bear cholla (Opuntia bigelovi) is also referred to as “jumping cholla” by many. It can be distinguished by its dense, straw-colored spines and yellow to green flowers.


Sonoran Desert of central and south Arizona and northwest Mexico to an elevation of 4,000 feet.


Dry, sandy soils of bajadas, valleys, plains and slopes.


Scattered at the end of branches and on fruit, flowers bloom in March and April. They are about 1 inch long with 5 to 8 white and pink petals streaked with lavender.


Green, spineless, pear-shaped berries grow on the edge of pads. Fruit is 1 1/2 inches long and half as wide and has many seeds. Some remains attached for several years and bear new flowers and fruit annually. Such fruit clusters will hand in long, branched chains

— A.R Royo

Desert Plant & Wildflower Index

Photo tips: Most digital point-and-shoot cameras have a macro function – usually symbolized by the icon of a little flower. When you turn on that function, you allow your camera to get closer to the subject, looking into a flower for example. Or getting up close and personal with a bug. More on desert photography.


Cholla, (genus Cylindropuntia), genus of about 35 species of cylindroid-jointed cacti (family Cactaceae) native to North and South America and the West Indies. The living plants serve as food for desert livestock, and cholla wood, a hollow cylinder with regularly spaced holes, is used for fuel and novelties. Some cholla fruit is edible.

jumping chollaJumping, or teddy bear, cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii).Grant Heilman/Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Chollas vary in size, from low branching cacti to small trees about 3 metres (10 feet) in height. They have small flowers, sometimes chartreuse and inconspicuous but more commonly of more-striking colours. The plants have characteristic glochidia (small bristles with backward-facing barbs in the areoles) that are difficult to remove from human skin. They readily reproduce vegetatively, the spiny segments easily breaking off from the parent plant when disturbed by animals or heavy storms.

At least two species—cane cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata) and Whipple’s cholla (C. whipplei)—are hardy to −18 °C (0 °F) or below. The desert Christmas cactus, or tasajillo (C. leptocaulis), holds its bright red fruits through the winter. Teddy bear cholla, or jumping cholla (C. bigelovii), is native to northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States and is sometimes cultivated as a desert ornamental for its showy golden spines. Chollas were formerly placed in the prickly pear genus (Opuntia).

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