Tree Cholla — January 2009

Cholla flower1

Cholla flower

When we find ourselves in the midst of winter, many of us especially appreciate a robust and vibrant flower such as the one produced by the tree cholla, Cylindropuntia imbricata.  Even though we will not see these flowers in the flesh for at least another four months (assuming we receive some spring precipitation), the tree cholla is a signature plant of the Preserve and much of New Mexico that stands out at all times of the year.  It is a long-lived perennial that grows in deserts, dry plains, and in piñon-juniper woodlands to an altitude of about 7500 feet.  Closely related to the prickly pear cacti characterized by flat paddle-like stems (genus Opuntia, named after a Greek city), the chollas have only recently been separated from Opuntia into their own genus, Cylindropuntia, which is characterized by cylindrical stems.  Consequently you will often see the scientific name Opuntia imbricata still being used to indicate the tree cholla.  Imbricata refers to the overlapping, shingle-like appearance of the stem surface.  Other common names used for this plant are cane cholla, chainlink cactus, cholla, walking stick cholla, and even teddy-bear cholla, leading to confusion with similar names for some of the other six species of Cylindropuntia native to New Mexico.

Cholla plant2

Cholla plant

Tree cholla is probably the most appropriate name for this plant as it is quite tree-like in appearance with its much-branched cylindrical stems and the fact that it can grow to 15 feet tall, but it usually ranges from 3 to 8 feet in height.  Close inspection of the stems reveals a distinct jointed growth pattern and the presence of raised knobs along the surface, each bearing a cluster of 10-30 sharp one inch-long spines.  Like most cacti, the tree cholla has a rather small root system consisting of many thin surface roots capable of quickly taking up rainwater.  The fleshy stems are able to store significant amounts of water to sustain the plant between rainfalls.  The plants bear large (2-3 inch wide) deep red/magenta flowers on the ends of terminal joints in the late spring to early summer.  Each flower has many petals and numerous stamens surrounding the thick, cylindrical central pistil.  After pollination, seeds develop in the base of the flower contained in a berry-like fruit structure that turns yellow when ripe.  This 1-2 inch barrel-shaped fleshy fruit lacks spines and is often referred to as a “tuna.”  The tunas persist on the ends of branches throughout the winter adding interesting specks of color to our winter landscape and making the tree cholla even more conspicuous at this time of year.

Cholla tunas3

Cholla tunas

Cholla skeleton4

Cholla skeleton

When tree cholla stems die, an interesting lattice-shaped woody skeleton persists.  Such dead stems have been traditionally used as walking sticks and in a variety of decorative items such as crosses.  Cholla stems are a favorite natural material utilized in various ways by many Southwest artisans.  When live stems are harvested they can be assembled (with appropriate care) into substantial stockade fences.  Native Americans have used cholla in a variety of ways, but not so much for food.  Fruits and stems were harvested and usually roasted before eating, but cholla was generally considered as a “famine food,” routinely collected and stored, but only eaten when other food was scarce.  Cholla stems were undoubtedly used to make various useful items and the spines have been used as sewing needles.  Among the medicinal uses of tree cholla, dried stem pith was applied to earaches and thorn coverings were pounded into a paste used to treat boils.

Although some regard the tree cholla as a nuisance, especially after an unexpected encounter with its barbed spines; when this plant is treated with the respect due any cactus its rugged character and dogged persistence may be fully appreciated.  Its abundance and stature combine to make the tree cholla a most appropriate symbol of the southwestern landscape.  And the unusual bold colors provided by both the flowers and fruits of this plant are an unexpected and welcome additional bonus.

© 2009 Jerry Melaragno

For a downloadable pdf of this flora essay, click here.

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