Eric’s Pet Plant: Teddy-bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)
Building the desert section of Yale’s new greenhouse has been consuming Eric’s every waking hour, so I guess it’s hardly surprising we’re hearing about the plants that will live there. His last column was devoted to a vicious tropical tree fern, and this time he’s palling around with one of the least friendly cacti in existence. Pretty though (if you like that sort of thing).
Teddy-bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)
By Eric Larson
To start, please remember that this Friday ( the 29th!) is the big hootenanny known as the Grand Opening of the New Greenhouse and Open House at Marsh Botanic Gardens. We will have live music, tours of the glass houses, light refreshments, a ribbon cutting by Yale’s very own bass player extraordinaire in the Professors of Bluegrass (and oh yes, he is also the Provost when not practicing scales) and much more. So come on over, down, up, across, whatever direction we are from you, just come.
This column’s plant is going into the Desert Display end of the recently completed greenhouse. But not yet. I have more soil to place, and I don’t want to be rubbing up against this character while I’m working. There is no rubbing this plant the wrong way because it’s all the wrong way.
Chollas, or for botanists Cylindropuntia, comprise a genus of about thirty or so species, all native to the southwestern United States and Mexico. Our species is found at elevations from about a hundred feet to thirty six hundred feet above sea level, in rocky and very sandy soil. They frequently form dense colonies, because they propagate by stem divisions that fall to the ground around the parent plant, forming thickets of impenetrable needle-bearing two to five foot tall plants.
Cylindropuntias had been included in the Opuntia genus, but have been discovered to be distinct. They share some traits, including similarities in flower, but it is Opuntia that provide the well known Prickly-Pear. Like many cactus (which are related: Cylindropuntia is in the Cactus family, Cactaceae), the needles are barbed, so they go in easily but they don’t come out so well. This also is a dispersal technique for the plant, as the stems that shed from the plant to form new plants often get caught in the hair, fur or hide of passing fauna, which carry the primordial plantlets on to other areas.
Although this species flowers, few viable seeds result, which means that the forests of Teddy-bear Cholla are usually clones of one parent plant. The Desert Woodrat gathers the Cholla ‘balls’ or chunks of the stem, to line the area around its burrows to keep predators away.
Dave has the two plants shown in the picture growing in a sunny window, which is exactly what they are looking for. They prefer very low humidity, low temperatures in winter, infertile soils, infrequent watering and to be left alone. Cylindropuntias generally bloom in February, March or April depending on elevation, with the spring rains, longer days and warmer temperatures. The general aspect of the plant is interesting even when not in bloom, so it is a great addition to the xerophytic or dry-garden. (Or the houseplant collection of a person in the frost belt who has a deep-silled sunny window and not much interest in plant care. LL)
Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the author. Yale University and Marsh Botanical Garden and Leslie Land are not responsible for the inane and sometimes off the chart craziness of this publication.
An Update From Eric: My niece Libby Larson responded with the following concerning our last plant, the Teddy-bear Cholla: “When hiking in the desert, it is essential to carry a comb. Not for looks but to remove any cholla that become attached.” Another niece, Jo Runnels responded: “Seems like a more appropriate name for this plant would’ve been “Porcupine” Cholla!” Indeed it seems cruel to equate this plant with something as soft and cuddly as a Teddy Bear. But botanists have other things on their minds than domestic bliss perhaps when naming plants. James Thurber wrote a great short story about the disappointment of a botanist’s wife at having her name immortalized by her husband on some insignificant (to her) weed, while her friend the ornithologist’s wife had a beautiful bird named after her.