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Cylindropuntia imbricata (tree cholla)

The tree cholla is a cactus closely related to the prickly pear (Opuntia) and is equally spiny.
Cylindropuntia imbricata

Cylindropuntia imbricata (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Cylindropuntia imbricata (Haw.) F.M.Knuth

Common name: 

tree cholla, walking stick cholla

Conservation status: 

Least Concern (LC) according to conservation assessments made in the New Cactus Lexicon, following the IUCN Red List criteria.


Dry grassland in sandy and rocky areas.

Key Uses: 

Ornamental, decoration, dead stems used as walking sticks, food in time of famine.

Known hazards: 

Spines are barbed and hazardous and as with all thorny plants can result in secondary infections.


Genus: Cylindropuntia

About this species

The so-called tree cholla is not actually a tree at all, but a succulent shrub, which in favourable conditions can grow to the height of a small tree. It is normally seen in Europe as a greenhouse plant and has striking large (but short-lived) flowers.

Sir David Prain, one time Director of Kew and editor of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine wrote the text accompanying the plate of this plant. He noted that the plant illustrated came from Sir Edmund Loder of Leonardslee, Sussex, where ‘a plant which he had himself collected in Colorado in 1878 flowered early in August 1908’.


Cereus imbricatus Haw., Opuntia imbricata (Haw.) DC., Grusonia imbricata (Haw.) G.D.Rowley


Discover more

Geography and distribution

Found in central and northern Mexico and southwestern USA in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado at elevations of 1,200 - 2,300 m. It has also become naturalised and invasive in parts of South Africa.


Hand-coloured lithograph of Cylindropuntia imbricata (as Opuntia imbricata) by Matilda Smith (1909), from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.

In cultivation, Cylindropuntia imbricata is normally a shrub 1–2 m high, but in the wild may occasionally grow to a small tree up to 5 m. It has thick, cylindrical, knobbly, woolly, spiny stems bearing spreading or ascending spiny branches. Spines have barbed sheaths as well as being barbed themselves. 

Flowers are dark pinkish-purple or magenta, measure 6–9 cm across and occur from late spring to summer.

The yellow fleshy fruits are spineless and barrel-shaped with a flattened end. They measure approximately 3 cm across and persist during winter.

Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.

Now well over 200 years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants.

Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.

Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Find out more about Curtis’s Botanical Magazine


Cylindropuntia imbricata is grown as an ornamental. The young stems and fruits were dried and eaten by native Americans during the winter months whenever food was scarce.

Old stems become hollow in the centre, leaving an attractive latticed outer casing, and these dead stems are used to make decorative walking sticks and floral arrangements.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in Kew's seed bank vault at Wakehurst.

Description of seeds: Average 1000 seed weight is 7.531 g
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Two


Propagation of tree cholla is by seeds or rooting of stems.

This species at Kew

Cylindropuntia imbricata is grown in the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

Pressed and dried specimens of Cylindropuntia imbricata are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers from around the world, by appointment. The details of some of these can be seen online (under the synonym Opuntia imbricata) in the Herbarium Catalogue.

Kew’s Economic Botany Collection includes a rough walking stick made from tree cholla that was brought back to Kew from Colorado in 1882.

References and credits

Hunt, D., Taylor, N. & Charles, G. (2006). The New Cactus Lexicon Volume I. dh books, Milborne Port, Dorset, UK.

Moerman, D.E. (1998). Native American ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.

Pinkava, D.J. (2001). Cylindropuntia in Flora of North America 4: 103–118. Oxford University Press, New York.

Prain, D. (1909). Opuntia imbricata. Curtis’s Bot. Mag. 135: t. 8290.

The Plant List (2010). Cylindropuntia imbricata. (Accessed 11 June 2011). Available online.

Kew Science Editor: Martyn Rix
Kew contributors: Nigel Taylor and Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group)
Copyediting: Malin Rivers

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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