How to Grow and Care for Cholla Cactus (Cylindropuntia spp.)

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Cholla cactus belong to the Cylindropuntia genus which contains around 33 different species. Originally, this genus was thought to be a subgenus of Opuntia. However, the genus now stands alone.

The main difference between the Cylindropuntia genus and the Opuntia genus is that the former has cylindrical stems while the latter has flattened stems called pads. In its native habitat, the Cholla cactus provides food and shelter for many different animals that live in the desert.

The fruit is edible and is often enjoyed by deer and bighorn sheep while many birds use the protection of the Cholla spines to build their nests. Cholla wood is often used as a substrate for many different air plants and also for bird perches.

Here are some expert tips on how to grow this useful but spiny cactus.

History

The Cholla cactus, pronounced choy-ya, is the most adept at survival and reproduction. This is precisely why it has such dangerous spines. These spines allow the cactus to stick to anything or anyone that passes, by breaking off small pieces of stem. Once these pieces are discarded or dropped on the ground, they’ll take root and a new cactus will start growing.

Sometimes these stem segments will just fall off the plant and be blown by the wind to land several feet away from the mother plant. These stems can easily be picked up by passers-by whether human or animal. They can cause extreme pain if they end up between the footpads of an animal such as a dog or even a horse. That’s precisely why this cactus is sometimes called the “horse crippler”.

If you do find a Cholla attached to your skin, you need to use a tool to get the spines out because they have overlapping barbs that dig into your muscle fibers. Many people who grow these cacti just use a plastic comb to flick the stem section away. Then, it’s just a case of using a pair of tweezers to pull out any remaining spines.

Many indigenous tribes including the Tohono O’odham, would harvest the flower buds of the Cholla to then dry, roast, and eat. Because of their high calcium content, these buds were often given to the elderly as well as nursing mothers.

Plant Facts

Scientific nameCylindropuntia spp.
Common namesCholla cactus, Jumping Cholla
GenusCylindropuntia
FamilyCactaceae
HeightUp to 15 feet
WidthAround 5 feet depending on the species
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone5 to 9
OriginDesert regions in Southwestern US and Northern Mexico
Flower colorsPink, red, yellow-green, and orange
Blooming seasonApril to June
Plant/Flower special featuresThe flower buds can be cooked and eaten after de-thorning them. They are high in Calcium. Cholla fruits can also be eaten or made into marmalade or candied.

How to Plant and Grow Cholla Cactus

Cholla cactus can be grown outdoors in hot climates but also adapt well to growing in pots indoors as long as they get plenty of light. One thing to remember is that these cactus species have very sharp spines with hooks on the ends.

These spines will readily stick into your skin and can be quite painful if not removed entirely. Therefore, make sure that you keep the plants away from pets and children and certainly don’t grow them in high-traffic areas. 

However, they can make a good deterrent to keep away unwanted visitors and even burglars if planted in strategic spots around your yard.

How to Propagate Cholla Cactus

One of the most successful ways to propagate the Cholla cactus is by using stem divisions. This can be quite a simple process as long as you handle the cactus carefully to avoid being stuck by the barbed spines.

To do this, just cut off some of the stems from the main plant. Allow these to dry out for around one to two weeks. During this time, a callus will form on the cut end. Once this happens, plant the stem cuttings into a fast-draining cactus mix. Take care not to damage the cuttings as you do this.

You should wait a few weeks before you water your cuttings to give them time to establish some roots. You can then water the new plants normally.

You can also propagate these cacti by using seeds that you’ve collected once the plant has fruited. However, it may take some time for the seeds to germinate and start growing.

Care and Maintenance

Cholla cacti require very little maintenance and generally prefer to be left alone. As long as you’ve planted yours in the correct mix, it’s just a case of watering when the soil is dry and giving your plant a little fertilizer during its growth period.

Soil

The plants need a desert-like soil that is sandy and free-draining. If you’re growing your Cholla in a pot, choose a specially designed cactus mix that has plenty of grit added. 

Water

Cholla cacti don’t need a lot of water as they are extremely drought tolerant. In fact, overwatering can lead to root rot in these plants. 

Make sure you let the soil dry out before giving the cactus any more water. During hot weather, you may have to water your cactus once a week if the soil dries out quickly. In winter, however, watering should be much less frequent.

Fertilizer

Cholla cacti should be given a diluted liquid fertilizer or a well-balanced granular fertilizer on a regular basis to promote good growth and flowering. However, don’t overfeed them because this will produce weak growth that won’t survive cold temperatures. 

Sunlight

Because Cholla cactus grow naturally in desert regions, they prefer plenty of exposure to direct sunlight (at least 6 hours per day). If growing your Cholla indoors, make sure that you place it where it will receive plenty of light on a daily basis. Consider a south-facing or southeast-facing window.

Chollas are also ideal for growing in rock gardens among other types of cacti.

Temperature and Humidity

Chollas prefers warm temperatures. However, they can tolerate a drop in temperature to around 5 degrees Fahrenheit (-15 degrees Celsius) but not for long periods. Therefore, if you live in a cold climate, it’s better to bring your Cholla inside during the winter.

Their most preferred temperature is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). However, if you want your plants to flower, then you’ll need to expose them to temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius). 

Pruning

Chollas can be pruned to achieve a more uniform shape. You can prune away dead or unhealthy sections or stems but use a pair of long-handled loppers so that you don’t come into contact with the spines. Always remember to wear thick gardening gloves when handling your Cholla cactus.

Pest and diseases

These cacti can be susceptible to attacks from cochineal scale insects. These sapsucking insects are white and secrete a red substance as they feed on the plant. You can easily rid your cactus of this pest by spraying it with a mixture made up of half water and half alcohol.

Uses of Cholla Cactus

The flower buds on the Cholla cactus can be eaten and are actually rich in Calcium. Many people harvest the buds just before they open from cacti growing in their native habitat by using tongs. The buds then need to be de-thorned before they can be used in cooking. The buds can also be dried and used at a later stage.

The fruits of the Cholla cactus can also be eaten and make a delicious marmalade. Sometimes, the fruits are also candied for a special sweet treat. 

Due to its prickly nature, the Cholla cactus can also be grown as a security screen to keep out unwanted visitors.

Common Varieties and Cultivars

There are around 30 species of Cholla cactus. Here is a selection of the more common types of cholla cactus.

  • C. acanthocarpa (Buchhorn Cholla)
  • C. fulgida (Jumping Cholla or Chain Fruit)
  • C. biglovii (Teddy Bear Cholla)
  • C. imbricata (Cane Cholla)
  • C. whipplei (Whipple’s Cholla
  • C. leptocaulis (Desert Christmas cactus)

Conclusion

The Cholla cactus is an easy plant to grow and an interesting specimen to add to your collection as long as you’re prepared to take extreme care when handling it. Fortunately, it doesn’t require a lot of care and really just likes to be left alone to grow and produce its magnificent flowers.