Jumping Cholla: Does This Cacti Really Jump?

Have you ever encountered a jumping cacti? More specifically, the jumping cholla cactus in Arizona? If you have ridden our⁠ Rock Art ⁠or ⁠Bring a Fork⁠ routes in Arizona then you have dodged more than a few of these spiky cacti. Today we interview Peter Breslin who holds his Ph.D. in Environmental Life Sciences and focuses his research on evolution, biogeography, and population of cacti. Breslin informs us about these amazing (and not so little) cacti, answers questions about if they really jump, and what do if you get “attacked!”

[00:00:00] Kira Corbett: This is The Connection, a Dirty Freehub
podcast connecting gravel cyclists to where they ride through short
stories about culture, history, people, places, and lands.
[00:00:20] Peter Breslin has been conducting work in the Sonoran
Desert region for 20 years, focusing on cacti and growing very fond of,
yet keeping a distance from getting poked, to the topics of cacti. On
today's podcast, Peter busts some myths and shares some unique facts
about a particular cacti. The jumping cholla.
[00:00:39] Well, Peter, thank you so much for joining us today. I'm really
excited to talk about these interesting little cacti.
[00:00:46] Peter Breslin: Well, thanks for having me. I know that
actually they're not that little sometimes, too. You know, , these cholla
cacti, the really fierce ones, they can be even 12 feet tall and you know,
the really old ones get get super [00:01:00] large.
[00:01:00] So they can be very intimidating.
[00:01:03] Kira Corbett: Oh my gosh, I didn't even realize they can be
that big. I guess like what is this jumping cholla cacti and what does it
look like? How big are they?
[00:01:11] Peter Breslin: Yeah, well, it's actually the scientific name is
cylindropontia It's really cylindro just comes from the fact that the stems
are kind of cylindrical, , and they're super spiny, and I guess usually the
jumping cholla common name applies to this particular species that's,
that's cylindropontia fulgida, and it, it's, you know, it's also called the
chain fruit cholla because it creates these fruits
[00:01:40] that actually flower the fruit actually sends out a flower and
then it sets another fruit and it creates these chains of Fruit that can
actually hang down to like the ground level So if you see that if you see
that you're looking at the classic jumping cholla candidate. The really
cool thing [00:02:00] about them from a biological point of view, now this
is the uncool part. If you happen to encounter one of these, the stems
detach really easily. Like you could just brush against a stem and it will
totally detach and stick to your clothes.

[00:02:18] And the, the biological advantage of that is that they
reproduce that way. So you're, you know, maybe you're hiking a trail,
biking, you know, gravel riding, and you brush against one of these
things, God forbid. Maybe, maybe it sticks to your sweatshirt or
something, you don't even feel it, actually. And then you notice it later
and you knock it off, like you knock it off onto the ground.
[00:02:41] Well, the odds are really high that that's going to become a
new plant, that little stem. They put out roots, they sprout from there, and
that's one of the ways that they distribute. So it's kind of a cool strategy
to, for reproduction. You don't have to flower, you don't have to set
seeds, you don't have to germinate.
[00:02:58] You just have this detached [00:03:00] stem, which came off.
You know, with no effort whatsoever. So that's the deal. And the stems
detach so easily that people have thought that they actually jumped. You
know, in the Spanish common name, it's cholla brincadora, which is the
jumping cholla.
[00:03:18] That's the Spanish name. The thing is they don't actually
jump. There's no mechanism to actually propel those little branches out
from the plant. They just detach so easily that people are like, I didn't
even touch it and it's on my clothes. Yeah. So, and the other thing to
keep in mind there is the stems can be long, two or three inches long.
[00:03:39] So, you can be. that close and it can easily, you know, get
attached to your clothing or, you know, as I said, maybe your skin. And
then you definitely notice it. So. Oh my
[00:03:49] Kira Corbett: gosh. Yeah. Yeah. How do you say the
scientific name
[00:03:53] Peter Breslin: again? Uh, cylindroponteifugida. F U L G I D
[00:03:58] Kira Corbett: Wow, that sounds like a Harry [00:04:00] Potter
[00:04:00] I love it.
[00:04:01] Peter Breslin: Right. Right. Exactly. You'd want to cast that if
you're riding and you see one, you know, make sure it stays at a

[00:04:06] Kira Corbett: distance.
[00:04:08] Peter Breslin: Yeah. Definitely. Make sure it stays at a
[00:04:11] Kira Corbett: Where are they typically found? Like I'm
picturing like Arizona, but are they found in other regions as well?
[00:04:17] Peter Breslin: Not in the United States in any great numbers.
[00:04:20] The distribution of this particular cholla is actually largely
Mexico. The Sonoran Desert in Mexico, but it does get up and there's
dense, really huge stands of it in the U. S. Up through the Tucson area
and west of there and, you know, up through central Arizona. And those
are the areas where, you know, if you are, like, out riding, you want to be
aware of where those things are.
[00:04:50] Oh,
[00:04:50] Kira Corbett: definitely. It seems like they're difficult to get
off. What's an appropriate way to get off of them? Because those spines
seem to really lock on to people.
[00:04:58] Peter Breslin: Yeah, the cholla [00:05:00] spines, especially
the jumping cholla, they have, first of all, very, very sharp points. So they
go in really easily. They have these barbs that face backwards.
[00:05:13] So, that's why the sensation of trying to pull the spine out is
so unpleasant. Because those barbs are actually tearing your flesh. So
you, so, so pulling them out, is not as easy as getting them in there.
[00:05:31] So the best way to remove a branch, like if you get one stuck
in your arm or your calf or something, is to don't, I know we have this,
tendency to grab it, right, and try to pull it out, but of course, what's going
to happen is it's just going to go into your hand that, you know, the
spines are going to penetrate the skin of your hand.
[00:05:54] So, the best thing to do is to slow down just a little bit and find
like a [00:06:00] stick, pretty sturdy stick or a rock, I've used both of
those, and work it in there, between the branch, sort of under the spines,
you know, and Pry it out of yourself , using a different object from your
hand. That, that's usually the best way to get it out.

[00:06:19] Because if you try your hand, of course, it's just going to stick
in there. And usually the good news is that with the choas, usually the
spines don't break off it in you. If you're able to pry it out of there with a
branch or a rock or something, it usually it comes out completely. So
that's good.
[00:06:37] Kira Corbett: That reminds me of like the Chevy Chase
scene where he's got some sticky tape on his hand and tries to use his
hand and it gets stuck on his other hand, so. Exactly.
[00:06:45] Peter Breslin: That's exactly what happens. It's a normal
instinct. You know, it hurts. It gets stuck in you. The normal instinct is to
grab it and pull it out, but you want to, you know, just step back a minute,
grab some other object to pry that thing out.
[00:06:59] You [00:07:00] know, of, of where it got stuck. You know, it's
best to keep your distance at all times. Yeah.
[00:07:06] Kira Corbett: Are they poisonous?
[00:07:07] Peter Breslin: No. Although I guess just through normal
bacterial like mechanism or whatever on the spines, just natural
existence of. Certain pathogens, if, if you don't get the spines out, I've,
I've heard of cases of there being, you know, infections from, from
getting punctured by one of these things.
[00:07:28] And then sometimes the spines can be really problematic if
they are in a joint, for example, like a knuckle or, you know, a knee, a
joint area, there's a lot of inflammation that can go along with that. So I
think in some cases, you know, if you pry that thing out. And there's
problems a day or two later, it's probably a good idea to, to get, you
know, actual medical attention.
[00:07:54] So, yeah, they're not poisonous, but they can be dangerous.
So it's a funny myth, you know, that these things jump, it's just [00:08:00]
a reflection of how easily the branches detach. So probably, I would bet,
just about any cholla where the branches detach easily, I bet those have
been called a jumping cholla at some point, because people could swear
they didn't touch it and the joint just, you know, landed on their sleeve or
[00:08:19] That

[00:08:21] Kira Corbett: makes sense where it's got its name because
it. Definitely seems like it could jump, but yeah, no mechanism there.
[00:08:26] Peter Breslin: Right. There's no, yeah, they don't actually
throw their branches at you.
[00:08:31] Kira Corbett: Yeah, that would be tough. It's between like
rattlesnakes and cacti in an area like that. Is there anything else that
you'd like to add about this species or some cacti in relation?
[00:08:41] Peter Breslin: Yeah, great question. I would just say, you
know, these are fierce, desert adapted, really tough plants that have a
lot of adaptations to very harsh environment. And they provide a lot of
habitat for like reptiles, lizards, birds, [00:09:00] cactus wrens build
actual bird nests in. The jumping cholla cactus for protection, you know,
from predators because they're smart, you know, they use the spine
cover as an advantage there.
[00:09:13] And so they're very important to desert ecology. They're not
always the most attractive or pleasant, you know, related to human
activities. But you can develop, if you're out in the desert a lot, and
you're seeing a lot of chollas, you can develop a real fondness for them.
And the flowers are often really quite, uh, dramatic and, and a lot of
beautiful colors, you know, pink and red and orange and yellow and the
flowering time of these choas, you know, in, in, in the desert can be very
[00:09:46] So they have their upside, you know, if you just keep a
respectful distance. Yeah.
[00:09:52] Kira Corbett: Well, thank you so much. I have been waiting
to do this topic for like every year now because I was so fascinated with
this whole [00:10:00] thought of this jumping cacti. So I appreciate you
[00:10:03] Peter Breslin: doing this today. Well, I'm sorry that they don't
actually jump because that would really be, you know, I mean, that
would be an amazing mechanism.
[00:10:10] I'm not even sure how they would, how they would do that.
There are, I mean, there are plants that hurl their seeds everywhere.
The fruit actually explodes and the seeds go flying everywhere. So I

guess. It's conceivable, right? But anyway, all you have to do is brush up
against one lightly and it seems like it jumped on you.
[00:10:29] Kira Corbett: I mean, after talking about it, I'm definitely glad
they don't actually jump at
[00:10:34] Peter Breslin: you. Right? That would be problematic.
[00:10:38] Kira Corbett: Well, thank you so much.
[00:10:39] Peter Breslin: Yes. Thank you. Thanks for having me. Dirty
[00:10:42] Kira Corbett: Freehub is a nonprofit organization fueled by
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