Who ever named the Teddy Bear Cholla must have had a twisted sense of humor. These upright branching members of the cactus family are anything but huggable. To be honest, there are some 20 different kinds of Cholla (pronounced Choy-ya) in the S.W. and only one of them is officially called a Teddy Bear Cholla. To an outsider looking in – carefully looking in – most of the Cholla in the desert surrounding Las Vegas, Nevada are very similar looking so, please excuse my eastern ignorance on this matter if I mislabel a Kliens’ Cholla and call it a Pencil Cholla etc..
All members of this group, regardless of common name, have cylindrical jointed stems which are armed to the teeth with straight sharp spines. Cactii in general are typified by spines which are nothing more than evil leaves. These armaments act to protect the softer green stem and, in cases such as the Chollas, shade the surface of the cactus stem itself. Teddybears, as I will call them, have a papery sheath covering each spine and are the only cacti to have this. This means that when one is impaled by a spine, the sheath remains in the wound to fester long after the spine is withdrawn. There are also tiny clusters of microspines called glochids located above the base of each main spine and these little buggers have a way of working their exquisite torment even if one merely brushes them.
Chollas are also called “Jumping Cactus” because the segmented sections will break off at the slightest touch or windlashing. I foolishly picked up one of these travelling segments. I did not get skewered by the big spines but was nabbed by several of the glochid micro spines (something I discovered much later as little pain spots developed on the ends of my fingers). Like a moron, I picked up another unidentifed cactus clump later with the same result (see here).
The Prickly Pear Cactuses (see above) that bristle across the Vegas desert are a familiar sight to me because these hardy cactii are found across the country to Michigan and the dunes of the Atlantic. They reach their pinnacle of existence in these western parts, however. Again, known by a dozen species names, all types are typified by the flat pads covered with neat rows of sparse spines and ordered clumps of those nasty glochids. One of them, the so-called beavertail cactus, has an oval pad that resembles that beaver appendage but, like the Teddy Bear Cholla, the resemblance stops at touch. I could not resist stopping to look at nearly every wild specimen I came across because they are, in my humble and rather worthless opinion, just plain neat looking.
They do produce a red oval fruit, but eating these things can be tricky. Only after brushing off the micro-spines does one dare to partake. They say these are quite sweet. I did try one fruit but it was apparently well past the expiration date and tasted something like cardboard pulp. Quite a few wild critters munch on the green pads of the prickly pear and it was not uncommon to find examples with hefty bites taken out of them like pieces of bread (Porcupine Pitas?). Desert tortoises have no problem doing this because their mouths are made of armor – they have no sensitive lips or tender palettes. The wild burros which occupy these deserts apparently knock the pads off and trample them underfoot before eating them.
One of the little community parks in the city of Las Vegas is thickly planted with multitude of huge prickly pear cactus clusters artfully arranged in the gravel. It is supposed to be a children’s playground but I’m not so sure how much active playing actually goes on there (imagine playing ball there: ”I’ve got it, I’ve got it…ouch, I really got it!…yow…help, mommy, help. Let’s just play chess.”
It would be nice if I could pontificate on all the types of cactus in these parts, but I’ll have to introduce you to just a few more and then leave it at that. Ignorance is a blessing sometimes and pictures do tell a story, you know, without need of deep explanation. Take the Barrel Cactus, for instance (see above). These squat rounded cactii have prominent vertical ribs and clusters of nails for spines. Scientifically this genus is known as Ferocactus which could be loosely translated as “fierce cactus.” A regional name, the Biznaga, makes no immediate sense but somehow captures the essence of this plant.
Finally, I present to you the Hedgehog Cactus in picture only (see below). There is not much more to say about this tightly clustered cactus except that it…unlike the teddy bear cactus…is very well named. I do believe that folks ran out ideas when trying to put names on members of the cactus clan. There are only so many words to sum them up. Porcupine balls, Echidna backs, Nail oranges, Ouchy meisters, Hurty sticks, Yowey plants, Unfriendly earth clusters, Vlad the Impaler Roses, and Pain Pillows are a few available examples which I offer. I realize that am a little late in this regard since they have all been named. One label they can all share in common, as far as I’m concerned, is “Fascinating.”