Flora Fact: Christmas Cactus
Tasajillo decorates the winter desert with red tunas.
By Dyanne Fry Cortez
It has everything a cactus should have: sharp spines, green succulent stems and a knack for living in harsh conditions. But the stems of the tasajillo plant are pencil-thin, and they can hide under creosote and other dry-country shrubs. In spring and summer, this plant may go unnoticed — at least until a hiker sideswipes one of its long spines, causing a tasajillo joint to break off and cling to a sock or trouser leg.
In winter, however, tasajillo is hard to miss. Its bright red fruits, about the size of grapes, ripen in fall and stay on the plant for months. It’s easy to see why some people call it Christmas cholla or desert Christmas cactus.
It isn’t strictly a desert plant. While tasajillo thrives in the Big Bend area and the desert Southwest, it’s also common in the Hill Country, the Panhandle and parts of South Texas.
The Latin name, Cylindropuntia leptocaulis, aptly describes the plant. Cylindropuntia denotes a cactus of the opuntioid tribe, which also includes prickly pears, but plants of this genus (commonly called chollas) form cylindrical stems rather than flattened pads. The name leptocaulis means “slender stemmed,” and tasajillo is the skinniest species of cholla. Its stems are barely a quarter-inch in diameter, but spines can be up to 2 inches long, protruding in all directions. Standing on its own, the plant rarely grows more than 2 feet tall. When it shelters under a mesquite bush or catclaw acacia, as it often does, it may climb into the shrub, reaching heights of 6 feet or more.
The cactus family is known for showy flowers, but the blooms of tasajillo aren’t nearly as conspicuous as its fruit. Scaled quail, turkey and pyrrhuloxia are said to enjoy the red fruits, also known as tunas. The flowers, greenish-yellow and a half-inch across, appear between May and September, opening in the afternoon and closing before sunrise. Some types of cactus bees are drawn to the flowers.
Tasajillo can grow from seed, but it’s more likely to spread by cloning itself. Opuntioid cacti have jointed stems, arranged in segments that can easily detach without damaging the rest of the plant. The joints are dotted with areoles, a specialized type of bud that’s peculiar to the cactus family. Spines, flowers and new branches arise from areoles. A stem joint that comes in contact with soil can take root and grow into a whole new plant. So tasajillo’s habit of hitching rides on hikers, bikers, cattle, horses and furry predators is an effective way to increase its numbers. It can take over large areas in grazing lands, where many ranchers consider it a nuisance.
Areoles appear even on the fruit of this cactus. It’s not uncommon to see new stem segments growing out of a tuna that has hung on through winter and into spring. And where there are areoles, there are spines. On the fruit, these take the form of tiny, barbed glochids.
The fruit is suitable for human consumption. Several native tribes made it part of a traditional diet. Martin Terry, associate professor of biology at Sul Ross State University, says the tunas are “vaguely sweet,” with a taste similar to the fruit of a prickly pear.
“They don’t taste bad, if you’re willing to deal with the spines,” Terry says.
Glochids can be scraped off with a knife or burned off with a lighter. Rolling fruits in campfire coals is another way of removing the stickers. But given their small size, dining on tasajillo tunas is a lot of work for little reward. For most of us, it’s best to appreciate this cactus from a distance, admiring the way those red globes brighten the winter landscape.