When it comes to Christmas cactus, you can literally go native.
What most people know or see in stores as Christmas cactus, a flat-leafed succulent with showy flowers, comes from Central America.
But there’s another kind of Christmas cactus: The Sonoran Desert nurtures a shrubby cactus scientifically named Cylindropuntia leptocaulis. It’s a Christmas cholla.
Jim Verrier, director of Desert Survivors Native Plant Nursery, calls it a “nice plant (and) one of our few little chollas.”
It got its name because the red fruit on the pencil-thin joints appears from November to as late as March.
“It looks like a small shrub with red ornaments on it,” Verrier says.
It’s the only cholla that typically has fruit in the winter. It grows to about 2 to 4 feet and about 2 to 3 feet in diameter.
Tiny flowers ranging from creamy white to yellow to green bloom in spring. Once they fall off around May, little green fruit begin to grow. By November, the fruit starts turning to purple and then red.
Christmas cholla sports both long and tiny spines, so it’s best placed in low-traffic areas away from pets and people. Give it space since pieces regularly fall off and easily establish new plants.
Because it’s native to the Tucson basin, the Christmas cholla is easy to plant, grow and propagate.
It is available at garden centers that specialize in native or desert plants. Verrier says the best time to plant is in spring.
If you know someone who has a Christmas cholla, you can take a 3- to 4-inch piece to plant.
“All you need to do is take a small cutting and stick it in well-draining soil in a pot,” says Gene Joseph, co-owner of the Plants of the Southwest nursery.
After about a year, you can plant it into the ground, where it will grow as a cold-hardy, drought-tolerant cactus that loves full sun, Joseph says.
Chollas in general aren’t very popular landscape plants, but Joseph says the Christmas cholla is worth adding to the yard.
“It’s a great smallish specimen,” he says. “It gives you a really nice flower show, it’s literally care-free, it has the colorful fruit in the winter and they feed the birds that are out this time of year.”