Desert Christmas Cactus (2006)

PhotoBy Joe Merkelbach (December 2006)

Although we usually think of the showy, flowered tropicals as “Christmas cacti,” there is a native American species that shares the name.

The desert Christmas cactus, Opuntia leptocaulis, is a cholla native to the U.S. southwest. It is found on the lower slopes and flat areas with heavier sandy and clay soils of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, from extreme southwest Oklahoma through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, to southern California and into Mexico.

The colors are exactly right: bright red and green, but flowers are not involved. The red and green in December are contrasting thin stems and bright berrylike fruits. The flowers are borne in the spring or early summer and are yellow or greenish-yellow with a pinkish wash. The fruits first form in a green color and then change to a bright red in winter. When most of the color is absent from the landscape, the desert christmas cactus shows a splash of holiday cheer.

The fruits persist in place for extended periods, and seeds germinate and sprout from fruits still in place on the plant. Plants with red berries and new bright-green shoots are an arresting sight.

The plants form as shrubs up to 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide. The fruits are a good source of food for desert birds and animals, and plants frequently grow beneath taller trees where the seeds are dropped. The shrubs also serve as good cover, so birds and small mammals often nest and live within their protection.

In addition to Christmas cactus, O. leptocaulis has many names: pencil cholla, tasajillo, tesajo and darning needle cactus, among others.

I have not seen this plant except in pictures, but if it is hardy, I think it would make a great outdoor decoration in our area with a bit of care.