Cholla Cacti

Cholla Life

A forest of jumping plants and teddy bears? It sounds like a children's story, but given that a cholla forest is made of cacti, this forest has an edge. The teddy bear cholla cactus looks fuzzy when sunlit from a distance, but up close, the fur-like appearance comes from papery covering over sharp spines.

The jumping cholla might seem at first to get its playful name from its twisted shape, like someone preparing to jump. But the real reason for the name is that stems break off so easily that they "jump" and hook dagger-like on to any hiker or animal passing by.

The tendency for chollas to amputate themselves and latch on to creatures passing by is a species-survival strategy. Rather than from seeds, chollas can grow anew from pieces that break off to hitchhike on desert dwellers or cast out on a strong wind. Since pieces tend not to travel as far as seeds, clone chollas often grow in clusters around a parent cholla.

In the resulting thick, spiny forests cactus wrens and curved-billed thrashers find a safe, if challenging, habitat for nests. Find out details in an interesting study put together by a biologist daring enough to pick a path through the cholla spine-field.

Despite a lack of seeds, jumping chollas do produce fruit. However, the fruit does not fall away so that year after year, each new fruit adds to a chain, a plant necklace.

A Quest for Cholla

There are 20 species of cholla cacti, and they live throughout the deserts of the United States. I photographed the forest above outside a resort hotel in Tucson, amidst the Sonoran Desert.

I believe the cholla cacti above are jumping cholla, since I can almost make out a chain of fruit. Jumping chollas are trees, meaning they have one central trunk that branches above the ground. Other chollas, such as the teddy bear, are shrubs, usually shorter and branching off from a point close to the ground. An additional group creeps along the ground.

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