Arizona cacti have names that are exotic all by themselves: Teddy-Bear Cholla, Purple Prickly Pear, Engelmann’s Hedgehog, Organ Pipe. The plants themselves are as different and exotic as their names. Some of them are flat, some are short and round, some majestically tall.
Pretty much all of them are spiked, but some are ever so much more nasty than others. This page might also be named “Why You Should Always Carry Tweezers in the Desert.”
Cacti provide a home as well as food and building materials for birds and other critters of the desert. Natives used the fruit and other parts of cacti for a long time before the Spanish came riding into the country.
There’s a lot of jargon about cacti and I’m going to try to avoid it as much as possible, but I’ll give you some links at the bottom that will help, should you want to know more. One thing I’ll mention now: “Cacti” is what I’m going to use for multiples of “cactus.” A lot of people are using “cactuses” instead, but I see that as being for a bunch of different types, like this: “We have several Saguaro cacti and several different types of Prickly Pear cacti, but all of the cactuses are thorny.” Of course, I may not be consistent, either!
Let’s take Cholla first as among the Arizona cacti it is the one I find most fascinating and irritating. There are lots of types of Cholla found here, from the Christmas to the Buckhorn and Staghorn to the Teddy-Bear and Chain-Fruit Cholla.
I have a love/hate relationship with Cholla. It’s such a bizarre plant to look at, for starters. When we first came to Arizona, we went out driving near Lost Dutchman State Park and saw these strange almost-trees with fuzzy arms and spiney trunks. We weren’t sure what we were seeing, but it was that plant, the cholla, that really brought home to us, even more than the mighty saguaro, that we weren’t in Kansas any more.
And that’s why I love it.
I hate it because it really wants to rend my flesh. Cholla, especially the Jumping version, is designed to break off into small chunks if it is brushed. This protects the main plant. The result is that even if you’re nowhere near the arms and just walking down a nice smooth trail, one of those chunks can jump up and stab you in the ankle (speaking from personal experience here). Not only that, but because of its shape, it’ll pivot around and stab you with a whole bunch more spines. The spines are not just pointed, though. They’re barbed at the end so they hook under the skin, making them tough to pull out and leaving behind pieces to make the next week fun too.
HINT: Seriously, carry tweezers because when you have to pull those things out, you don’t want to use your fingers. Along the sides of each spine are very fine barbs that will embed themselves into your fingertips. Nice, yes?
Christmas Cholla is a very thin-stemmed, fairly short plant. Its fruit ripen to red in the winter, giving the species its name.
Pencil Cholla is just a bit larger, and named because its stems are about a pencil-width across.
Buckhorn and Staghorn Cholla are larger still and are kind of hard to tell apart from one another on first glance. Staghorn holds onto its fruit for longer and the fruit don’t have spines. Buckhorn has a whole bunch of spines in each cluster on the stem and its fruit fall off sooner.
I think this one is a Staghorn. If you look close, there is a Cactus Wren hiding in there near the nest.
Teddy-Bear is a much heavier-looking plant. It has so many spines on it that it looks almost soft and fuzzy-looking (thus its name), but it isn’t very nice if you do touch it! The Teddy-Bear can grow up to five feet or more in height and has a sturdy trunk that looks very tree-like except for all the spines that cover it.
Like the Chain-Fruit (or Jumping) Cholla, the Teddy-Bear has segments that separate easily. The result of brushing either of them is that a whole chunk of the plant will embed its spines into whatever part of your body, clothes or equipment. As I mentioned above, the spines are also barbed along the shaft, they don’t want to pull back out and, just to make it more exciting, makes pulling them out with your fingers an experience of its own! You see, the barbs break off and stick in your fingers, so you get many, many little barbs stuck in them too.
The Chain-Fruit Cholla has dangling fruit chains that just grow longer and longer as time goes on. It can get to 10 feet or so in height so it can have fairly long dangly bits. It gets the name Jumping Cholla from the ease with which a segment that is just barely brushed “jumps” to you. I’ve seen a suggestion that it also may be named for the ease with which it jumps from one location to another on you as you try to dislodge the chunk of cactus.
Moving on from the Cholla clan, Hedgehog and Barrel cactus are both cylindrical, with the Hedgehog having a much smaller diameter (and it’s usually shorter than a mature Barrel). Barrel cactus can be quite large, growing to 10 feet in height or more from a spherical start. The flowers of a Barrel grow at the top of the cactus. Fish Hook Barrels have, well, hooks on their spines.
Hedgehogs come in different flavors, but the ones around here are mostly Englemann’s, from what I can tell. They’re also known as Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus for the color of their blossoms. They frequently grow in clusters.
Prickly Pear come in many shapes and sizes. They grow flat pads rather than the cylindrical shapes of other cacti. They are far and away the most widely spread of the cacti that grow here, with species that grow naturally in many parts of the Americas and having been transplanted to many other places, and ranging from low desert to mountain elevations.
A few of the species are considered not to have regular spines, but all have very small, barbed spines that will stick in your skin if you’re not careful.
Purple Prickly Pears do have a reddish-purple color to them and Beavertails do have pads that are shaped somewhat like a beaver’s tail. Prickly Pears grow flowers in many colors (sometimes even within the same species) and range from just a foot high up to several feet. Both the fruit and the pads are edible with proper preparation (read that in part as removing those tiny spines!).
The best-known cactus around here is the Saguaro (pronounced “Suh-wa-row”). They are the elders of the desert plant community, living and growing slowly, and some of the oldest are estimated at well over two centuries in age. They grow to 50 feet and weigh up to ten tons. A Saguaro may not start getting “arms” until 60 or 70 years of age, but a lot depends on the frequency and amount of rain and the terrain on which the cactus stands.
Check out this stick and notice how the yearly spacing varies!
The Saguaro is the grand hotel of the desert, too, with many animals using it for shelter and food.
Gila Woodpeckers and Flickers make holes for their nests in Saguaros and other birds may move into the old nests. The cactus creates a seal around these holes, so they can tolerate quite a number of them. After a Saguaro dies, the old nest cavity may be left as a “boot” made of the sealing material. The Saguaro also has a central ribbed structure that often stays upright long after the cactus has died.
I recently read that the Saguaro originated in a more temperate forest, thus explaining why it grows so tall – its flowers, which are at the tips of its arms and trunk, are thus pushed up through competing trees to get to the sunlight and the critters that pollinate it.
Speaking of the flowers, Saguaro flowers are white (see the picture at the top of this page) and appear in the spring. The red fruit, which splits open while still on the Saguaro in late June and into July, is often mistaken for flowers. The birds chow down on the Saguaro fruit, so you can see all kinds of birds on a desert hike at this time of the year.
Oh, and Saguaros only grow in a little bit of California, part of Arizona and in Mexico. I’ve seen old TV shows with the Indians attacking General Custer from a ridge lined with Saguaros. El Paso Taco Sauce has a Saguaro on its bottle, I think, and no Saguaros grow close to Texas. Yes, they are icons of the desert, but don’t be fooled that they are in every desert or dry place! Even in the Southwest they are very limited in their range.
Organ Pipe and Senita:
Two more “cousins” among the Arizona cacti are the Organ Pipe and the Senita. Both grow multiple arms from a base, but the Senita has fewer ribs on each arm (from five to nine on each) and a really interesting growth pattern. As the arms get long enough, the spines at the top get much longer, which gives each arm a “gray-headed” effect. It is speculated that this is a measure to protect the tips of the arms from the sun. The Senita grows up to 15 feet in height.
The Organ Pipe has more ribs than the Senita and can grow above twenty feet, making it the second tallest of the Arizona cacti after the Saguaro. The flowers on the Organ Pipe are long and white and pop out the sides of the arms. The Organ Pipe, like the Senita and the Saguaro, blooms at night, but the Organ Pipe closes its flowers as soon as the sun is up, where the Saguaro stays open until midday.
That’s the Arizona cacti, but remember: “All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.”
Ocotillo is often mistaken for a cactus, but it is not one. It does, however, have plenty of thorns to defend itself! Yucca, Joshua Trees, Aloes and other succulents are also often mistaken for cacti.
Some links that may be of help:
Places near Phoenix to see Arizona cacti:
Other places to see Arizona cacti: