The Joys of Cholla

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

Recently when I addressed the Tucson Cactus & Succulent Society, I made the mistake of saying I don’t recommend that anyone grow cholla (pronounced “choy-ah”). I mean, look at it. Could there be a more unfriendly plant? Well, you’d think I’d insulted a favorite son.

“There are more than a dozen different species,” the members told me, each more eager than the next to extol the virtues of this cylindrical-limbed, jointed cactus. “Cholla is beautiful.”

More than one species are commonly referred to as “jumping cholla,” from the way branches detach easily—the main way the plant propagates itself. Spines are not something a cowboy wants to pick out of a horse’s legs, or a gardener from her arm. “This is my cholla comb,” one member of the group 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 is an important part of the desert ecology,” another said. “Nesting birds feel safe in it. Snakes, coyotes and other predators can’t get them or their young.” 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 end.

Cholla comes in more colors than I originally assumed—not only its flowers, but even its spines and skin.  Aptly-named Cylindropuntia versicolor is green, rose-red and maroon…

 

…with lovely rust-red flowers.

This is Cylindropuntia bigelovii, commonly called teddy bear cholla. Look at how fuzzy it is, and its cute little ears. Like all chollas, it’s gorgeous backlit.

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

Cylindropuntia spinosoir, illuminated by the late afternoon sun, glows pink.

Cylindropuntia fulgida var. mammillata (chain fruit cholla) forms what look like beaded, ropy strands.

Cylindropuntia ramosissima at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.  The common name is diamond cholla because its pencil-thin stems lined with toothpick-like white spines appear to glitter.

 

A dove nests in Cylindropuntia fulgida, at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson.  Birds aren’t the only ones to use cholla as a security enhancement; Arizona homeowners sometimes plant it under their bedroom windows.

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

Many thanks to Vonn Watkins of the Tucson Cactus & Succulent Society for his help with cholla IDs.

My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via blog postsnewsletterspublic speaking and workshopsphotosvideosmerchandise, and social media (Facebook and Pinterest). My books: Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardensand Succulents Simplified.  www.debraleebaldwin.com 

Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored the Timber Press bestsellers Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified. Debra is a regular contributor to Sunset and other publications, and her own half-acre garden near San Diego has been featured in Better Homes & Gardens. Debra specializes in showing how to use architectural, waterwise and easy-care succulents in a wide variety of appealing and creative applications. www.debraleebaldwin.com.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin

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Rick Brown June 20, 2010, 9:04 pm

Learn something new everyday. This was a good day. Thanks to your post, Debra Lee. Now I like Cholla. I would have never thought that would be the case.

Me, too, Rick. But am I going to plant it in my garden? Maybe, but only in a pot! Debra

joco June 21, 2010, 6:27 am

Now those might keep the neighbours’ cats out!
Fascinating. The Teddy Bear cholla would do nicely.
If they are really able to withstand very low as well as very high temperatures, then I might stand a chance growing them here. Unless too much rain would be an obstacle?
Thank you for yet another interesting post.

Yes, you might go into the garden and find a cat impaled on the cactus. (OK, that’s not funny. Well, maybe a little.) I do think too much rain would be a problem. The roots of cacti are not set up to handle a lot of water, except during their rainy season. You don’t say where you live, but if you’re anywhere in the Southwest, including SoCA, you should be able to grow cholla easily if you keep it dry in winter and plant it in coarse, nutrient-poor, fast-draining soil. Debra

Patrick Anderson June 21, 2010, 1:36 pm

Well, as beautiful as they may be, they’re not coming anywhere near my garden. Cholla and dogs do not mix. I’m happy to admire them from a distance.

I loved going on a cholla hunt and seeing so many different varieties. But in my garden? With two dogs and a little grandson? Even the agaves are dicey. I have to keep their leaf tips clipped. Debra

healingmagichands June 22, 2010, 10:51 pm

Boy, this post took me back. When I was a very little girl (three or so) we went out to Joshua Tree on a regular basis for camping and rock climbing exercises. (My dad was a rock climbing instructor for the Sierra Club.) One evening when my older sister and I were being particularly annoying while my pregnant mother was attempting to wrestle dinner out of the recalcitrant Coleman cooking stove, she turned to us and said “Oh, why don’t you go kiss a cholla?” Being rather literal children, that is exactly what we did, one of the Teddy Bear variety. Dinner was quite late seeing as how she had to spend quite a lot of time with tweezers removing cholla spines from our lips.

Despite that experience, the sight of a cholla glistening in the evening sun still brings me great pleasure. But I don’t have them in my garden! Too wet here.

Vonn June 23, 2010, 12:29 am

This is really nice and it does address the various issues that a number of people have with the chollas. I think you covered it quite well and I am impressed. Here in Tucson and the vicinity we have the most species located in one local area of the world. One other thing that might be useful is that the cholla buds are collected by the various Native American tribes and added as a food source during the budding season. The buds can be eaten at the time of collection (usually boiled or fried after removal of the spines or glochids) or are pickled for use later in the year. A few cholla buds can easily take care of your daily dose of calcium as they are very nutritionally rich and taste great.
I try to grow as many chollas as I can although I have an easy control on where they are in the landscape. Container culture is accepted here in Tucson as well and is probably the preferred way (by the general public) to grow a cholla. The chollas can also offer several great species that can easily grow in a number of cold climates. For excellent protection of property, it is highly prized!

Hi, Vonn — Your insight and additional info are very much appreciated, as was your kindness when I was in Tucson. In fact, I found the whole community to be quite warm, ha. — Debra

Chookie June 25, 2010, 5:18 am

They are fascinating! Alas, it would be too wet here to grow them. A kaffir lime under the window works well here, though.