Anyone who has spent more than a few days in Arizona has likely heard cautionary tales of the “jumping Cholla” (pronounced choy-ya). According to legend, this vicious plant randomly attacks passersby without warning.
Officially known as cylindropuntia bigelovii by botanists, a more friendly name for the same plant is Teddy Bear Cholla for the fuzzy, cuddly appearance it takes on in certain lighting. No matter what you call it, this cactus deserves respect as a very efficient plant that survives in the harsh desert climate on less than 10 inches (25.4 cm) of precipitation a year.
The part of the plant that sometimes attaches itself to humans and pets is called a joint. It can break off of the main plant easily – with as little force as a strong breeze. Once on the ground, a cholla joint will usually root in the soil, forming a new plant. Sometimes this prickly node ends up in the ankle or calf of someone passing through on a hike. The cholla is quickly handed down the verdict as an attacker, when in all likelihood, it was the hiker’s missteps that resulted in a counter attack on the part of the plant.
As with many things in nature, the jumping (Teddy Bear) cholla is best observed from a distance.