Cochise County Plants: The Cane Cholla Cactus, Cylindropuntia Imbricata


November 17, 2013. Cylincropuntia imbricata, the cane cholla cactus, finally inspired me to set up an Index for Cochise County plants. I was out and about, trekking across our property to fire up a generator, plug in the well pump, and fill up our 2825 gallon water storage tank. The bright yellow fruit on one particular cholla (the only one growing along the house-to-wellhead route) seemed especially vibrant.

Out came the camera.

Caveat: I apologize for starting this page with a focus on the plant’s fruit rather than its flowers. As it stands, we’ll need to wait on flower photos for spring to roll around again. The fruits hang on the cholla stems throughout the winter, but only in spring do the glorious magenta blooms make their appearance.

Still, the fruit will get a desert traveler’s attention all by itself.

The bright yellow fruit on this cane cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia imbricata) caught my attention.

The bright yellow fruit on this cane cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia imbricata) caught my attention.

As I walked toward the cactus, taking an occasional snapshot along the way, my sense of…almost reverence, I think it would be fair to say…permeated my consciousness. There’s a rather mystical connection between us, this transplanted Montana cowboy and the native “jumping cactus”. Aside from the ubiquitous (and much beloved) mesquite trees, the chollas were the first desert plants that caught my attention in early 2006.

At that time, I wasn’t living here, but my wife was. Pam and her son, Zach, were getting by in a Sierra Vista, Arizona, motel room. There was one other resident, a growing half Great Dane puppy named Cooper. It was a crowded situation that had been pressuring the occupants for far too long; more than a month had passed since I’d first rented that room for the three of them.

However, we thought we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. (It turned out to be an oncoming train, but that’s another story.)

We’d purchased eight acres of land not far from King’s Ranch Road, a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. Our plan was to move a used mobile home onto the land. The plan failed due to the perfidy (or incompetence) of the man who’d sold us the real estate, but we hadn’t figured that out quite yet.

In the meantime, when we’d first explored the acreage on foot, I’d encountered my first cholla.

“Don’t go near that,” I was told by the seller, by Pam, and by Zach. “That’s a jumping cactus. It’ll jump out and stick its spines in you if you go too close.”

Color me careful.

Only later would I learn that our local cane cholla plants do not literally jump. Their segments are simply detached from the stem of the plant with ridiculous ease. If an unwary wanderer brushes one, the spines will turn the touched segment into a hitchhiker.

Since unwary folks generally don’t realize they’ve actually contacted the thorns, the nickname “jumping cactus” was born.

Three years after that first land purchase didn’t work out, we tried again. This time, farther east along the border by several miles, we ended up with a much better piece of property. Though off grid (which we prefer anyway), it had a well already up and running. Our initial buy was only four acres, but we were eventually able to up that to 20 acres. The overall situation with neighbors was better (meaning the closest neighbors were farther distant).

And we still inherited a few cane cholla cactus plants.

Not enough to suit us, but some. We cheer every time we discover a “new” cactus plant. Our place has plenty of vegetation overall but only two species of cacti, the cane cholla and the prickly pear. I’d like to say I could tell you the locations of half a dozen cane cholla plants today, but we probably don’t have even that many. Or maybe we do; there are some areas covered with thick stands of brush, mesquite, and bunch grass that could be harboring a few cholla plants in secret.

The camera and I moved in on the cane cholla cactus fruit....

The camera and I moved in on the cane cholla cactus fruit….

Other online sources frequently mention the high concentration of calcium contained in cane cholla buds, an important nutrition source for old school Native Americans and modern survivalists alike. It’s also well known that our Arizona state bird, the cactus wren, likes to nest in cholla cactus plants and that the cane cholla tends to endure cold weather better than other chollas.

What is not mentioned elsewhere, at least that I’ve found so far, is the remarkable appearance of the stems. It’s an illusion, of course, but it’s not hard to imagine these cholla stems as being braided like a fine, multi-strand length of rope.

Cane cholla cactus stems.  It's an illusion, of course, but a quick glance gives the impression that the stems are braided like pieces of stiff rope.

Cane cholla cactus stems. It’s an illusion, of course, but a quick glance gives the impression that the stems are braided like pieces of stiff rope.

Wikipedia refers to the cane cholla as sometimes producing an “invasion” that is “hard to control”, especially after periods of crazy cholla eating cows grazing on them. For some weird reason, drought is also mentioned as an aid to these “cholla invasions”.

On our property, we’d love to see that–not the drought or the sore lipped cattle, but the increase in cholla plants. At the moment, they feel (to us) like an exotic endangered species, precious and rare and deserving of protection.

For now, until the chollas bloom in another five or six months, we’ll stop here.

After one more photo of a cane cholla fruit, that is, up close and personal.

A cane cholla fruit up close.  Once peeled, these are edible, though you might want to study up on preparation before you chow down.

A cane cholla fruit up close. Once peeled, these are edible, though you might want to study up on preparation before you chow down.

6 thoughts on “Cochise County Plants: The Cane Cholla Cactus, Cylindropuntia Imbricata

  1. This is an interesting looking cactus. I have seen some of them and the blooms are beautiful. I have seen a cane made of one of the desert plants and I am not sure which one, but it was a beautiful cane. It had holes all over it and was stained a light brown. I wish I knew which one it was.
    My hubby informs me that many of the cactus fruits do taste good. He went on a survival week when he was in the Army and was planted in Death Valley by himself, with a knife and a sheet of plastic. He has the distinction of being the only one that has done this and gained weight while he was out. He likes rattlesnake and cactus fruits. The barrel cactus is also a handy cactus.

  2. Just looked it up and this is the plant that the gorgeous cane came from. Dried stalks lose the thorns and make a good walking stick. That is one of its names, the walking stick cactus.

  3. The cane you saw was made from this species. When the central stems die and dry out, that’s exactly what they look like. I hadn’t realized the stems were strong enough to use in that fashion until reading about it when I researched online last night for this post.

    I clearly recall you mentioning Dennis’s ability to go with knife and plastic sheet into Death Valley and come out heavier. Reckon they don’t call the Special Forces guys “Snake Eaters” for nothing, and Dennis was obviously (from everything you’ve mentioned) one of the best of the best. I did know about the barrel cactus. Did not know (until last night) about the sky high calcium content in cane cholla buds–a tablespoon of cactus producing as much calcium as an 8 oz. glass of milk (as if anyone using 8 oz. glasses these days).

    Hah! Now I see you figured it out for yourself. Teach me to respond to your first comment without waiting to read your second. Bet if I picked up a piece of dried cane (the stems do collapse eventually, after however many years), rubbing down with linseed oil might produce a real treasure. I may have to try that.

    Gotta run–Pam needs stuff from the pharmacy for her hives we figure she got from the wind. Been horrible out hear, from the south/southeast out of Mexico, for a good two weeks. Finally quit now, but she’s got eye irritation AND rashy bumpy skin spreading down and out from there.

  4. I found this today near the mountains of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
    I even remember seeing the fruit near the end of the hike. I went near it and touched the fruit. I felt drawn to it, as Eve in her plentiful garden of eden, [and you for that matter 🙂 ] I loved it just as much as you & your explanations of its jumping tendencies were whimsically true.

  5. Very cool image, Stephanie; thanks for commenting. Those “bones” of the cane cholla always look like that, once they’re old and dried out, but that is an awesome photo. (Not to mention the impressive cartwheel in the surf!) 🙂


    Becky, I have no idea why your comment didn’t catch my attention. Missed it somehow. I’ll mention your “wind solution” to Pam. It sounds familiar, but she’ll be able to tell me if she’s ever tried it or not.

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