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Desert Christmas Cactus Opuntia leptocaulis


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Desert Christmas Cactus
credit: John J. Mosesso

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Alternate name: Christmas Cholla

Family: Cactaceae, Cactus view all from this family

Description This inconspicuous shrubby plant with many short, intertwined, usually spineless stems bears flowers which open only in the late afternoon.
Habit: native perennial shrub; thin trunk with scaly pale brown trunk.
Stem: succulent, cylindrical segments, alternately branched, dark green becoming gray-green to purple-green, 0.8-3 in (2-8 cm) tall, to 0.2 in (5 mm) diameter; thicket-forming.
Height: 1.5-6 ft (0.5-1.8 m).
Leaf: spine, red-brown to gray-brown, to 2 in (5 cm) long or more; one per areole; frequently spineless.
Flower: small, with translucent petals, pale yellow to greenish yellow to bronze, with occasional red tip, 0.5-1 in (12-25 mm) wide; held along stem; opening in late afternoon, closing at night.
Fruit: spineless barrel-shaped berry, green to yellow becoming scarlet, around 0.5 in in (12 mm) long and 0.25 in (6 mm) diameter, sometimes larger; held along stem.

Warning These cacti have sharp spines as well as tiny barbed hairs called glochids that can be difficult to remove from the skin.

Flower March to August, sometimes in October.

Flower April - June

Habitat Low elevation desert: overgrazed grasslands, mesas, chaparral, arroyos, oak-juniper woodlands, flats, washes, bajadas and slopes, sandy, loamy to gravelly substrates; 130-4900 ft (40-1500 m).

Range New Mexico east to Oklahoma and Texas, south into Mexico.

Discussion Also known as Christmas cactus, pencil cholla, desert Christmas cholla, tesajo cactus, rat-tail cactus, slender-stem cactus, garambullo. Now classified as Cylindropuntia leptocaulis. Collection is restricted in Arizona. This plant has the slenderest stems of all southwestern chollas. During winter its bright red fruits add attractive color to the brown desert.

Exposure Preference Sun.

Native Distribution Arizona to Oklahoma, Texas & adjacent Mexico

Site Preference Mesas, flats, valleys & washes in deserts

Soil Preference Sandy soils.