By Dawn Pier
After four years with almost no measurable rain in the East Cape region of Baja, the desert looks dead. It’s predominant color is grey with virtually all vegetation appearing devoid of life. The exception is the mesquite, which grow in arroyos (dry river beds) and must have incredibly deep roots that tap into aquifers running deep below the surface. Even the cacti are starting to show signs of water stress, turning red, their ribs shrinking like folded accordions as the water they store dwindles to precariously low levels.
I marvel at the free-ranging cows, horses, donkeys and goats. How do they survive? What do they eat? Fortunately, some of the ranchers provide their animals with fodder, but all too often they are left to search the desert for their meals. As they look desperately for something to eat, they opt for more and more challenging sources of food. The result is that they are seen ambling down the road with Cholla cactus stuck to their faces and necks.
Cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.) is closely related to, but distinct from the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) in that it has a cylindrical stem rather than a flattened one, like Opuntia. What the two have in common is that they are both covered in spines. Cholla is native to North America and the West Indies.
However, the Cholla experience is not restricted to animals. The Cholla’s tendency to grab onto a passerby, even a two-legged one, with a ferocity that one normally doesn’t ascribe to plants has earned it the common name “Jumping Cholla.” It seems to literally jump onto anyone daring to come too close and sinks its spines into their flesh. Consider that the spine of the Cholla can penetrate the hide of a cow: Once you, a human, have a piece of Cholla stuck into your flesh, it is not only painful, but you will discover just how difficult it is to remove it. You can’t grab it to pull it off or you’ll find your fingers and your leg are connected like Legos.
In my first encounter with this nasty cactus, I trod in bare feet on a dried piece that had somehow found its way onto the kitchen floor. Fortunately, a Cholla-knowledgeable Baja friend was present and, once I’d stopped cursing in pain and hopping up and down on one foot, he taught me how to remove it.
If you’re close to home, chopsticks work perfectly as removal devices. Otherwise, find a couple of strong, straight sticks. Carefully slide the sticks between your skin and the plant at two points along the cactus. You will notice that the spines are firmly stuck in your skin and moving them creates a disconcerting sensation, as your skin pulls out in little tent-like peaks where each of the spines inserted itself. You’ve just discovered what makes Jumping Cholla seem to jump, and that this isn’t going to be as easy as you may have first thought. The spines are covered in microscopic reverse barbs that work their way into the skin once they are in place.
Extracting cholla from your skin is a lot like removing a Band-Aid; it is best done quickly and without hesitation. Try to relax (ha!) and quickly move the sticks at right angles to the main body of the cactus, away from your body in a smooth and strong flicking motion. If you do it correctly, the pain will be acute, but momentary. If you don’t do it right, well, there’s more pain coming down the pike.
Cholla, along with rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas, are just another of the desert’s charms. Check out the video below for more information on the jumping cholla.
Have you ever had a run-in with jumping cholla? Or another desert resident perhaps? Share your experience with us!
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