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.
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.
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.
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.