Golden torch used to be found in many places in San Diego County but are becoming rare due to habitat loss and private harvesting.
The name "prickly pear" comes from the fruit. Pear-shaped fruit in various colors from yellow to red to dark purple are grown at the tips of the pads on various varieties of prickly pear. The most well known is the Indian fig cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) that originated in central Mexico. It has been cultivated all over the world for hundreds of hears to produce the prickly pear we can find in markets.
We read on the nature trail in Catalina State Park that the prickly pear in the Sonora Desert turn their paddles to avoid direct sunlight to the flat of the pad.
Native Americans of the Southwest cooked both the pads and the fruit. The pads, called nopalitos, have been shown to lower cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar levels. The fruit appear to have similar properties. Native Americans have used tongs to gather the fruit which are rubbed down with straw to remove the little spines called glochids. The fruit are then peeled and eaten or dried and stored.
Jumping cholla gets its name from the way it most often propogates, by letting pieces of itself break off easliy from animals or severe weather. The pieces root and grow clone plants. As a person walks past, one of the long barbed spines can snag clothing and a loose segment of the plant can pop or "jump" onto a surprised hiker. The spines are sharp and their barbed structure cause them to work their way into whatever they touch, often causing a painful extraction from the skin and continued penetration into shoes. (With similar propogation methods one can see why some folks use the name Jumping Cholla for Teddy Bear cholla, too.)
The tree-like jumping chollas create forests of cloned plants in the Sonoran Desert. They can also grow at altitudes of up to 4000 feet so animals like bighorn sheep will supplement their diet with the chain fruit to get through a drought.
We also noticed bird nests in many of taller chain-fruit chollas. Apparantly the cactus wren likes the safety of the high spiney branches.
Staghorn and buckhorn cholla look a lot alike and based on their descriptions I don't believe we saw any buckhorn cholla this trip. Staghorn cholla tends to grow a bit more treelike but the two distinguishing features are the spines and the fruit. Staghorn cholla have clusters of 5-7 spines that are under an inch long while buckhorn cholla have clusters of up to 20 or more spines containing a few long ones that are an inch or more in length. Staghorn cholla fruit look full and have few or no spines and they remain attached to the plant for most of the year. Buckhorn cholla fruit looks dry and is spiny and falls off after a few months.
There is a lot of staghorn cholla around Tucson, particularly in the Tohono O'odham reservation. The Tohono O'odham ate the flower buds of staghorn cholla and sometimes baked the fruit.
Teddy Bear cholla are covered with so many fuzzy spines they look soft. I can attest from personal experience that they are not. These cholla have upturned arms that grow with loose joints and densely crossed spines, so any unsuspecting animal or tourist can easily snag and detach an arm. These detached arms take root and are the primary way the plant reproduces.
They can grow to six feet tall but are usually found to be much smaller, clinging to steep rocky slopes. The old arms at the base of the plant turn quite dark while the newer arms take on a striking slivery-gold shine in bright sun.
Native Americans cooked and ate the flower buds and the new arms were eaten after burning off the spines.
Some saguaro fail to grow lateral arms and instead grow a fan-like form known as crested saguaro. This condition is rare and the cause is debated. Some say a lightning strike alters the growth pattern and others say a genetic mutation determines the shape. Where one is found you are more likely to find others, lending weight to an environmental theory.